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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas and Arias

Grosser Herr and Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen, from the Christmas Oratorio
Cantata BWV82: Ich Habe Genug (1727)
Cantata BWV158: Der Friede sei mit dir (1727)
Am abend, from the St Matthew Passion (1729)
Mache dich, mein Hernxe rein, from the St Matthew Passion
Es ist vollbracht, from Cantata BWV159 (1729)
Auf mit hellem schall, from Cantata BWV128 (1725)
Hat man nicht mit seinen Kindern, from Cantata BWV211 (Coffee Cantata) (1735)
Ralph Kohn, baritone
English Chamber Orchestra/Ian Watson
Recorded January, March 1994, St Jude’s, Hampstead, London
CAPRIOLE CAPCD 1010 [63.20]

This Bach issue is something of a mixed blessing. The documentation is symptomatic of the whole enterprise, in that the back cover shows clearly that two cantatas, BWV82 and BWV158, dominate the programme. Then some of the other items are logged as if they were simply additional movements within the cantatas, rather than extracts from completely different compositions. This is sloppy design and editing, and in a competitive market place it won’t do.

Happily the musical side of things is rather more consistent, though the programme itself seems to be an indulgence rather more than an imaginative insight into the subtleties Bach can offer us for baritone solo with string orchestra.

To take the main items first: Bach’s cantatas are surely music’s greatest treasure trove. For where else is so much first rate music lurking beyond the conventional repertory? Ralph Kohn is a fine baritone and he dominates the disc, which is a vehicle for his artistry. But in Bach the word ‘virtuosity’ has a hollow ring; nor does Kohn seek to astonish us at the expense of musical sensitivity. In every piece included on the disc his true artistry sets the tone. As such the highlight has to be one of Bach’s greatest cantatas, Ich habe Genug, BWV82.

Kohn is ably abetted by Ian Watson and the English Chamber Orchestra, who offer a full-bodied string sound that complements the solo voice remarkably well. Each movement has its own personality, but the success of the performance is surely the longer-term issue of how well the joyous finale emerges as the natural resolution of the pensive, and often dark, movements that precede it.

While Cantata 158, Der Friede sei mit dir (May peace be unto you), has not attained the fame of Ich habe Genug, it remains a remarkable and appealing composition in its own right. Here another anomaly of the production emerges, since there is a significant role for the chorus, contributing in ensemble with the bass soloist before the final movement, which is a conventional four-part chorale setting. But who are the members of the chorus? The booklet does not tell us, so we can only presume they are associated in some way with the English Chamber Orchestra.

Be that as it may, the performance itself is a masterpiece of integration and teamwork. Ralph Kohn leads the ensemble with confident tone and a sure awareness of appropriate phrasing. If there is a criticism of his singing it is that he tends to force the tone at times and to create a wider vibrato than some may wish to encounter in Bach. But the matter is not beyond accommodation and the commitment to the music is never in doubt for a single moment.

The other items too will give the listener pleasure, but they may bring frustrations too, since they are heard out of context and with little artistic justification, other than that they were readily suitable for the forces already assembled.

Terry Barfoot

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