15 March 2013
Christopher Purves on singing the Passions
Christopher Purves, who sings the bass arias in our performance and recording of the St John Passion, describes his approach to singing the Passion
“I am singing the bass arias in the forthcoming AAM concert and recording of St John Passion. It is, of course, not the first time I've performed this wonderful work or indeed other major choral pieces by Bach. Indeed, with AAM I've performed Christmas Oratorio and St Matthew Passion on many occasions, and they count as some of my happiest and most profound musical experiences.
“As an opera singer in the main, I'm always trying to tease out of works of this nature the dramatic or theatrical content, trying to understand why I'm saying what and when. It's relatively easy to understand the function of the chorus in the Passions and of course the named roles, such as the Evangelist or Christus or Pilatus. But what of the Bass soloist, what does he represent, whose side is he on, who does he address in his monologues, does he add to or take away from the narrative? These questions often are not addressed by the performer or by the conductor, and I think lead to a certain level of detachment from the soloists as I believe that they often don't know how to place themselves in the unfolding story. Their solo items become almost a Meistersinger style Prize Song, and in many cases posing far too few questions such as ‘What was all that about?’.
“I believe that the solo singers should place themselves alongside the dramatis personae and not detach themselves: they should immerse themselves in the narrative and be at the moment of first utterance exactly what the story and action needs, be it a moment of introspection, or a moment of revelation, or even a call to action. Otherwise does it not totally interrupt the headlong cascade to the inevitable crucifixion of Jesus? I believe that the solo singer should not necessarily be seen or heard to comment from another century, but rather be implicated in the Passion of Christ, as I think Bach invites us to be, as if all of us are in some way responsible for his death. In the same way that the Parish priest steps up to give his sermon at Mass and can never be innocent of being involved in the continual acting out of Christ's betrayal and death, so the solo singer must not distance himself from the action, the emotion, the anger, the hatred, the fear, the rancour of the chorus and the unfolding story.
“I know Richard Egarr will have his own thoughts about this and many other things concerning the performance and I look forward to learning about them in rehearsal, but as so often is the case with Richard, he will leave us to bring our own thoughts to bear and won't force an interpretation. I adore his way of revealing the intricacies of a major work through the medium of humour, wit, playfulness and a zest for music making at the highest and most rewarding level.
“You, as a performer, can't help but be inspired by this approach and when I mentioned that the performances with AAM of Bach's major choral works had been happy and profound, I forgot to add the word, fun. Even though the smile isn't absolutely etched on your face, it's certainly helping to pump blood through your veins and stoke the fires of your imagination. I wouldn't have it any other way.
“So when we come to recording the piece, as opposed to giving a concert, this is where the imagination takes over. You can't rely on the sense of occasion because there will be no audience, there will be no performance levels of anxiety, it will be about the music and perhaps not so much about the occasion of Christ's Passion. Your imagination has to remember where you were at any given point in the story, what were your feelings, what made you take that particular musical choice, why did you colour that word in that way, why did you use that vibrato there, why slide there. This is what will make this concert speak to an audience and this is why people will reach for this CD above all others to put on during a bleak Tuesday in February.”