> BACH & HANDEL - Sacred Arias [PJL]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Aafje Heynis sings arias by BACH and HANDEL
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Bist du bei mir, BWV5081 [3.17]
‘Was mein Herz von dir begehrt’ (from Cantata ‘Es ist euch gut, daß ich hingehe’, BWV108) [5.59]
‘Erbarme dich’ (from St Matthew Passion, BWV244) [7.16]
‘Bereite dich, Zion’ (from Christmas Oratorio, BWV248) [5.31]
‘Es ist vollbracht’ (from St John Passion, BWV245) [5.37]
Ave Maria (arr. GOUNOD)2 [3.20]
‘Schlafe mein Liebster’ (from Christmas Oratorio, BWV248) [10.08]
George Frederick HANDEL (1685-1759)
Arioso ‘Dank sei dir’ (attrib.)1 [4.19]
‘Father of Heaven’ (from Judas Maccabeus) [6.39]
‘Return, oh God of Hosts’ (from Samson) [6.18]
‘Virgam Virtutis Tuae’ (from Dixit Dominus)3 [3.12]
‘Oh thou that tellest’ (from Messiah) [5.27]
‘He was depised’ (from Messiah) [11.11]
Aafje Heynis (contralto)
with Vienna Symphony Orchestra, cond. Hans Gillesberger, except as follows:
1 Pierre Polla (organ)
2 Pro Musica Choir, cond. Lex Karsemeijer, with Meindert Boekel (organ)
3 Amsterdam Chamber Orchestra, cond. Marinus Voorberg
tracks cond. Gillesberger recorded 1961 and (Messiah tracks) 1963
other tracks recorded 11957, 21960 and 31970
ELOQUENCE PHILIPS 464 631-2 [77.16]

The name of Aafje Heynis doesn’t ring a bell as loudly these days as once it did: unlike Kathleen Ferrier, the artist with whom she most obviously invites comparison (if only because of their deeply committed singing, their compellingly unaffected artistry, and Roy Henderson, celebrated teacher of both Heynis and Ferrier) and who – thanks to a considerable legacy of recordings – enjoys unparalleled fame of the sort her Dutch counterpart never enjoyed, and perhaps never even sought.

I must first put my cards on the table. I approached this disc with no more knowledge of Aafje Heynis than the few recorded roles she undertook (usually with distinction, I might add) in the early 1960s under Van Beinum, Jochum, Klemperer and the young Haitink, in whose first (1962) Resurrection Symphony recording she was a memorable soloist. (Regrettably, not many of these discs remain in the catalogue.) And the thought of more than an hour of heavy-handed, old-school Bach and Handel playing, whatever one might anticipate of the singing per se, persuaded me repeatedly to put this to the bottom of my pile of review discs.

But I have been overwhelmed by the beauty of these performances: indeed they have drained me emotionally!

Heynis sings with a gloriously mellow tone, and with total conviction. Vibrato is used with discretion, and very much at the service of the phrase; she can warm the voice to marvellous effect at the highpoints of a line, or to heighten or vary emotional intensity. Her phrase endings are always beautifully finished, and changes of register sensitively managed: she uses her wide-ranging vocal palette to paint the text tellingly and subtly.

The voice is so ‘clean’ that (one imagines, had she been born 20 or 30 years later) she would have worked well in tandem with a Gardiner, King or McCreesh. As it is, she is partnered by Gillesberger and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, who – whilst they play competently, even musically, within their own parameters – exhibit the weighty tone, lazy articulation and broad tempi of yesteryear’s Bach and Handel. One misses the precision, freshness and energy of today’s much-better-informed performance practice. So ‘Erbarme dich’ is rather sluggish (it would sound sentimental were it not for Heynis’ insight and eloquence) with its laboured demisemiquavers, measured grace notes and plodding pizzicato bass. The solo cellist (no gamba, I’m afraid) in ‘Es ist vollbrach’ makes little of his ornaments, resulting in the light and shade of Bach’s wonderful line merging into an anonymous grey. And the breathless long bows which the massed VSO violins adopt for Handel’s semiquavers in ‘Oh thou that tellest’ rob the music of all its smiling happiness: how fortunate that Ms Heynis sings with such clarity of articulation and verbal detail, full to the brim of understanding and meaning!

I could have done without the glutinous, sanctimonious Bach-Gounod track, which is in any case mono, live, noisy (both tape and audience) and let down by notably shoddy choral ‘support’.

Ave Maria excepted, the recordings are acceptably clean and truthful. The booklet gives brief (too brief) biographical details, tells us nothing about the music and offers no texts.

Ferrier fans (and anyone who admires fine singing) need not hesitate. Notwithstanding my various misgivings, dividing the top-of-the-tree artistry on offer here by Eloquence’s pocket-money asking price amounts to a tempting bargain!

Peter J Lawson



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