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
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
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.