When we discussed the glories and vicissitudes of using boys’ voices to sing Bach’s music, I planned to introduce a glorious exception, that is, a young boy soprano who in the early 80s recorded one of the most beautiful renditions of a Bach soprano aria I have ever heard.
Meet Sebastian Hennig, born in Hanover in 1968. He had the best training imaginable back then, provided by one of the best mentors in Germany: his own father Heinz, who had founded the famous Knabenchor Hannover (“Hanover Boys’ Choir”) in 1950. The young Sebastian joined his father’s choir as a soprano in 1976 and left it as a baritone in 2004.
Sebastian’s soprano voice matured during the collaboration of the Knabenchor Hannover with Gustav Leonhardt as part of the first complete recording of Bach’s cantatas for Teldec (Leonhardt shared duties with Nikolaus Harnoncourt). This has left us with a few remarkable recordings of soprano arias.
Sebastian Hennig’s soprano voice was not technically perfect – at that age, this is almost impossible. But the voice had a core that distinguished it from many of his young colleagues’. There was to his voice an almost physical “germanity” that escapes the best trebles from the British tradition. When time comes to perform Bach’s music, that deeply embedded cultural connection can work miracles. Hennig’s voice didn’t only float; it could also bite in the darkest words in a way only professional adult singers can.
His recorded legacy is of uneven quality, but one specific aria stands out: his recording of the great soprano aria from cantata BWV 127. For discussion of the music and a translation of the text, I refer you to my previous article on this work, with a recording performed by soprano Carolyn Sampson. The occasional wavering of tone and intonation only adds to the incredible humanity of this music. That someone can accomplish such a feat at such a young age is almost enough to question anyone’s disbelief in karma and reincarnation. (I said almost.)
Other star boy sopranos have come and gone on the world musical scene. In the mid-80s, British boy soprano Aled Jones was the talk of the country – he is now a theatre and TV figure better known for his spoken voice. The brightest star in the recent firmament is the young Finnish Aksel Rykkvin whose voice broke only a few years ago. His natural technique, beauty of tone and musicianship are well documented on YouTube and a couple of CDs. His future path seems to be equally brilliant: a recording of him singing Schubert’s Die Forelle (“The trout”) with his brand-new baritone voice at age 15 (!!!) in 2018 sounds incredibly promising.
In my career as a conductor I have worked with a lot of former young boy choristers, most of them trained in the amazing British church choral system which has produced cohort after cohort of great musicians. Some of them are singers in their new life, others have become top-notch instrumentalists. All have in common this incredible baggage: they have been confronted at a very early age with the highest musical standards, including the almost unattainable ones set by Johann Sebastian Bach. All of them can sight-read anything at any speed. Music is almost their first language; this is a precious gift that cannot be won back later in life.
Some days I feel terribly jealous. Only some days.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Cantata, Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott, BWV 127: "Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen"