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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantata Ich habe genug, BWV 82 [23:42]
Cantata Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, BWV 199 [27:00]
Loraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo)
The Orchestra of Emmanuel Music/Craig Smith
rec. 13-16 May 2002, Emmanuel Church, Boston, MA. DDD
NONESUCH 79692-2 [50:42]

For me this disc is very definitely an example of "better late than never". It came out in 2003 and I recall reading a number of very enthusiastic notices at the time but, for some reason, the disc eluded me until a few weeks ago when I came across a copy in a store and pounced.

These recordings have an interesting genesis as Michael Steinberg points out in a characteristically perceptive and informative liner-note. In the early 1970s Craig Smith, the Director of Music at Emmanuel Church, Boston began what Steinberg rightly describes as "an amazing project." Each Sunday and feast day during the main service at his church Smith would perform a Bach cantata appropriate for the day. Eventually all Bach’s surviving church cantatas had been given at Emmanuel in their correct liturgical context – a culmination marked by the declaration of Bach Cantata Week in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts by the then-Governor, Michael Dukakis. Smith’s devoted service to Bach’s music continues to this day in the same way on every Sunday between September and May (www.emmanuel-boston.org).

The soloist on this present disc has a direct link with that project. Smith draws his orchestra from student and freelance players in the Boston area. In the early 1980s, Lorraine Hunt, as she then was, was active as a violist in the city and she became a member of the Emmanuel orchestra. Subsequently she began what turned into an international career as a singer. How appropriate that she should return, as it were, to her Bachian roots to make this CD.

The coupling of the two cantatas is particularly apposite because some time before making the recordings Miss Hunt Lieberson sang these two works in staged versions directed by Peter Sellars. As is so often the case with work by this director, I recall that the productions were controversial. However, I’m sure her participation in the dramatic stagings must have had an effect on the way she approaches the music itself. This may account, in part at least, for the extraordinary intensity with which she puts it across here.

Cantata 199, Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (‘My heart swims in blood’), comes from Bach’s Weimar years. It dates from 1714 and is a cantata for the eleventh Sunday after Trinity. I can’t recall hearing it sung by a mezzo before; it’s more usually the preserve of sopranos in my experience. Its structure is somewhat unusual in that it opens with a recitative and one, moreover, that is accompanied by the orchestra rather than by continuo, as, indeed, are the other recitatives. The text graphically details the anguished penitence of a sinner and Miss Hunt Lieberson communicates the words with searing, almost raw emotion – though I must stress that this is not done to excess. The recitative lasts for just 2:35 but in this almost operatic performance she displays a tremendously wide emotional range. Then comes the profoundly penitent aria ‘Stumme Seufzer, stille Klagen’ for which Bach supplies an oboe d’amore obbligato of keening pathos. It’s superbly delivered here by Peggy Pearson, a founding member of the Emanuel Music orchestra, who proves to be an admirable foil for Miss Hunt Lieberson’s beseeching singing. Interestingly, and rather unusually, Bach interpolates a short passage of recitative into this aria.

In this cantata Bach takes us on a journey from the deep sorrow of the opening recitative and aria through to a joyful conclusion, as we shall see. The second aria, ‘Tief gebückt und voller Reue’ is, in this scheme of things, something of a bridge, for in it Bach begins to lighten the mood somewhat. Michael Steinberg felicitously describes this aria as "an expansive and noble movement….one in which Bach comes as close to Handel as he ever did in his life. Great calm reigns here, as though the singer felt relief after the confession of her guilt." This warm, lyrical music is balm to the spirit and to me it expresses a serene confidence in the mercy of God. That comes across, not just in the singing but also in the radiant playing that Craig Smith draws from his string players. After another recitative there comes a short chorale, which is decorated by a viola obbligato, well played here. The concluding movement, in which the joyful conclusion is attained, is a short gigue, ‘Wie freudig ist mein Herz’. Peggy Pearson’s oboe d’amore is once again prominent. This movement has a real spring in its step as the singer rejoices in forgiveness and the mood is splendidly caught by all concerned.

However, though that performance is very fine the reading of BWV 82 surpasses it. I have a number of distinguished recordings of this exquisite piece in my collection and up to now I’d rated the EMI recordings by Dame Janet Baker (1966) and Hans Hotter (1950) as the most expressive and eloquent. Miss Hunt Lieberson’s reading joins that illustrious company. Her performance is very different to both - as, of course, Baker’s and Hotter’s versions differ from each other - but it seems to me to be on the same exalted artistic and expressive plane.

The cantata was first heard, in Leipzig, on the Feast of the Purification, 2 February 1727. The text identifies with Simeon who, at the Purification, beheld the infant Jesus. That probably explains why in its original version the cantata is for solo bass. Subsequently Bach made a version in E minor for soprano solo. Here we have the third version, for alto, in which Bach reverted to the original key of C minor.

The opening aria is one of Bach’s most memorable and beautiful inspirations. The glorious vocal line is immeasurably enhanced by an oboe d’amore obbligato, which Steinberg aptly describes as being "achingly expressive". In this performance the singing is miraculous and the wonderful obbligato is played with surpassing artistry by Peggy Pearson. In fact. I’d say that her playing here matches that of such distinguished predecessors on disc as Pierre Pierlot (for Fritz Werner).

The subsequent recitative is stylish and delivered with great, but not overdone, feeling. At the heart of the cantata lies the wondrous aria, ‘Schlummert ein’. In this performance it’s ten minutes of pure magic. Miss Hunt Lieberson presents the refrain, which appears three times, as an intense and intimate communion with the listener though, rightly, she’s more outgoing in the two intervening sections. I found it all profoundly moving and marvelled at the control, the dynamic range and the all-round subtlety of her performance. The concluding aria, ‘Ich freue mich auf meinem Tod’, in which a happy death is a cause for rejoicing, is a joyful dance-like movement, with the oboe d’amore leading the dance infectiously, and rarely before have I felt so much in need of the emotional release that Bach provides in this movement after all that has preceded it.

On the face of it just under fifty-one minutes looks distinctly short measure for a full price CD. Part of me yearns for more. For example I’d love to hear these same artists in Vergnügte Ruh’, BWV 170. However, it was the right artistic decision to pair the cantatas that Peter Sellars staged and, of course, to use the same inspirational singer. Moreover, this CD is most emphatically one where quality is infinitely more important than quantity.

Craig Smith directs the performances in a most understanding and sympathetic way, one that bespeaks deep knowledge of and identification with Bach’s music. I found his pacing of the music was splendidly judged throughout and he obtains excellent and responsive playing from his orchestra. The recorded sound is first class. As I’ve indicated, Michael Steinberg’s notes are of the standard you would expect from him, which is to say excellent. The German texts and English translations are provided and I’m delighted to report that the typeface in the booklet is admirably clear, something one can’t take for granted these days. All in all, this is a high quality product in every way.

Even now, some weeks after first acquiring this CD I’m still in thrall to it. Moreover, I’ve played it to several friends, all of whom are knowledgeable about Bach’s music and about singing in general; without exception they’ve shared my admiration for it. I feel sure that most discerning Bach lovers will have acquired this disc a long time ago. However, if like me you have been dilatory in adding it to your collection I urge you to hasten to remedy this without delay. This is, quite simply, one of the finest Bach discs I’ve heard in a very long time and I don’t expect the artistic achievement contained in these two cantata recordings to be surpassed for some considerable time.

I am certain that I haven’t done adequate justice to these exceptional performances in this review. I hope, however, that I’ve conveyed my enthusiasm. I can’t recommend this marvellous disc highly enough.

John Quinn

Johan van Veen saw this disc from a completely different viewpoint

 

 



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