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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen BWV 56 [18’08"]
Der Friede sei mit dir BWV 158 [10’18"]
Ich habe genug BWV 82 [21’21"]
Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone)
Albrecht Mayer (oboe)
Members of the RIAS-Kammerchor
Berliner Barock Solisten/Rainer Küssmaul (violin)
rec. Berlin-Dahlem, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Jan 2004. DSD. SACD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 474 5052 GSA [50’05"]
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No beating about the bush here. Let me declare at the outset that this exceptionally satisfying disc is one of the finest examples of Bach performance that I’ve heard for years. Technically and interpretatively I find it impossible to fault and the singing of Thomas Quasthoff is superb from start to finish.

It is clear that the music on this CD has deep personal significance for Quasthoff. The author of the liner notes reminds us that the central theme of the two principal cantatas is redemption. He quotes Quasthoff as follows: "If someone has had a very fulfilling life and suffers a lot of pain in old age, in other words, if their life is reduced to just suffering, it is quite possible for that person to look forward really and truly to death. I can fully sympathize with this, as there have been times in my own life when I have felt that death would in fact be preferable to the life I was then living." This is a very frank and self-revealing statement, referring, no doubt, to the physical disabilities with which Quasthoff has had to contend and which make his vocal prowess and the eminence that he has achieved all the more remarkable. Small wonder, then, that he identifies so closely with the music and texts of these cantatas. However, this identification is conveyed with a degree of emotional reserve and dignity that makes the performances all the more satisfying and communicating, I find. There is no wearing of the heart on the sleeve here, just dignity and consummate musicianship.

Even among the manifold riches of Bach’s church cantatas BWV 82 stands out as a supreme achievement. The cantata, written for the Feast of the Purification and first heard on 2 February 1727, contains a wealth of intense expression, yet the music is essentially simple and direct. Quasthoff gives a magnificent reading, one that is fit to be ranked with Hans Hotter’s classic account (EMI). He would be the first to acknowledge, I’m sure, that the performance is enhanced immeasurably by the superlative contribution of oboist Albrecht Mayer. In the opening aria Mayer’s obligato is meltingly eloquent and he engages in a wonderful dialogue with Quasthoff. The singer, in turn, sings with a seamless legato. Every note is true and perfectly placed. Throughout the whole compass of his voice Quasthoff produces effortless, even notes and his diction is superb. Indeed, these comments apply to everything that he does throughout this recital. In this first aria he conveys masterfully and with complete sincerity the mood of quiet, dignified joy that is implicit in both words and music. Rainer Küssmaul paces the aria to perfection as he does, I think, everything else in the recital.

The recitatives are naturally and sensitively delivered. We are told in the notes that Quasthoff regards the central aria, ‘Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen’ as one of the most beautiful of all Baroque arias. That’s how it comes across here. He delivers it with superb sensitivity. Once again, the pacing is ideal so that the long lines just flow easily and eloquently. The concluding aria, ‘Ich freue mich auf meinem Tod’ simply dances for joy. I’ve referred earlier to Quasthoff’s command of legato. In this aria he demonstrates that he is equally skilled in articulating divisions. Once again there’s a wonderful contribution from Albrecht Mayer, whose oboe obbligato skips along infectiously.

Quasthoff and his partners are no less successful in their traversal of Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen BWV 56, a cantata written in 1726 for the 19th Sunday after Trinity (27 October that year). The first aria expresses elevated acceptance and Quasthoff rises to the challenge of this movement with singing that is characterised by splendidly clear, forward projection (yet again!) and excellent breath control. The following recitative is unusual. The text is full of maritime metaphors and instead of a secco accompaniment a cellist plays undulating figures, suggestive of the regular swelling of the sea. Quasthoff is extremely eloquent here but he never overstates his case. The aria ‘Endlich, endlich wird mein Joch’ is at the heart of the cantata. This is a delight from start to finish. More superb oboe playing (by Albrecht Mayer, I presume) and a pert bassoon continuo deftly support the soloist. Again Quasthoff’s articulation is wonderfully precise. The demanding, ornate divisions in this movement are difficult to bring off with clarity and precision while at the same time conveying the joyful meaning of the text but Quasthoff is completely undaunted by the challenge. Before the concluding chorale the soloist has a recitative and arioso which he communicates with wonderful conviction and inner certainty.

The disc is completed by the short cantata Der Friede sei mit dir BWV 158, a cantata for the 3rd day of Easter. In this Quasthoff is very ably supported by a small group of singers (13 in all) from the RIAS-Kammerchor. Let me simply say that Quasthoff’s singing in this work is completely on a par with his work in the other two cantatas.

Throughout the programme the playing of the Berliner Barock Solisten is first rate. This small ensemble plays on modern instruments, I believe, but they have clearly learned much from their colleagues who play on period instruments. Everything is cleanly and stylishly done and Rainer Küssmaul directs most sympathetically. Incidentally, I assume it is he who plays (very well) the difficult violin obbligato in the aria in BWV 158.

I have only listened to the recording as a conventional CD. The sound is excellent. The engineers reproduce a very clear sound but one which, to my ears, gives sufficient space around the musicians. There’s an appropriate sense of intimacy. Notes and the full texts are provided in English, French and German.

This is a most distinguished release. It is only a few weeks ago that the Editor asked the Music Web reviewers for their nominations for Recordings of the Year 2004. This CD arrived after that request. However, even at this very early stage I’m confident that this CD will be on my shortlist for 2005. I would venture to suggest that every collector of Bach cantata recordings needs to have this disc in his or her collection. I recommend it with the greatest possible enthusiasm.

John Quinn

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