Most choir directors (if they are into oratorios or passions at all) conduct perhaps two bigger works each year (I’m thinking of those who also have church services to attend to, and a restricted budget). An average choir conductor can only go so far with the preparations of these concerts – there is so much to see to. Initiatives from the musicians are generally welcome, even expected. You hire a baroque orchestra – you expect that they know their stuff. Many arias go un-conducted at these events.
The cellists and organists offer a special recitative service to suit the situation. A very large percentage of our conductors rely happily and benevolently on that service: the continuo players and the singers get time for getting used to each-other’s style and for testing all the recitatives once, and that’s usually it.
What likely happens during this ‘getting used’ is the following: cellist, singer and organist play through a recitative, listen to what needs to be improved in terms of togetherness, character and note length, make perhaps some annotations in their music and try again. In difficult cases they perhaps try another time. That’s all.
One recurring potential stress-moment is caused by varying opinions about note and chord length: secco recitatives require one short chord at the beginning of a phrase and after that, during the phrase, no (or very little) support, even at harmony changes. Some singers or conductors ask for longer chords in certain important spots (a classic is the part of Jesus in Bach’s St. John’s Passion, which generally is played legato). If the decision is to play the chords legato one naturally needs to play all the harmony changes within the phrase that one normally wouldn’t bother with (this may require some getting used to). One also needs to mark these places so one recognizes the nature of the special request during a performance. At the end of a tour, the accumulated five or six different annotated versions will literally stand out on the page. An eraser is your friend in those cases, and you’ll need some time to get your score back in shape.
Socially, the tryout session relies on a well-working triangle: singer, cellist, organist. Generally spoken, the first run-through is meant to sound messy in order to show where the problems lie (better now than during the performance). Sometimes different placements need to be tested because it is difficult to hear what’s going on. Sometimes, the singer wants to test a few different versions or expressions of a passage. Sometimes, small misunderstandings need to be addressed verbally. During all this, everyone strives (or should strive) for a comfortable, direct and intuitive approach. It is VERY difficult to get chords together if one is tense, nervous or upset, no matter how well prepared one might be. With good people involved, this approach generates outstanding results in very short time.
There are two vicious enemies to a good recitative rehearsal:
1) other musicians, who try to settle family matters over one’s head, or oboe players who discuss and test their reeds, while one is desperately trying to hear the singer and to get one’s chords in place. Don’t tell me this never happens.
2) those very few ambitious conductors, who do not trust the peace. They have no patience with first run-throughs and hence they intervene: “no, no, bar 40 is not together!” (this is a bit like entering your house after a rainstorm and the first thing you hear is “you’re wet!” It is only because we’re dealing with music that such samples of perceptiveness are considered necessary, even brilliant). They grant no time for making safe and clear annotations. After rocking the boat for a while, they’ve created proof for themselves that it is safer if they conduct the whole recitative from beginning to end. Conducting secco recitatives is the same as showing the cellist and the organist what the conductor thinks the singer means. If it’s not ineffective (which it likely is), it is sure annoying. Lucky are the contino players who encounter such a conductor at the end of a tour, after a bunch of totally fine and unperturbed recitative performances, and not at its beginning. You may feel a bit grumpy on your way home, but that’s okay.