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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sacred Cantatas for Bass
Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen
, BWV 56 [18:25]*
Ich habe genug BWV 82 [21:42]
Der Friede sei mit dir BWV 158 [10:09]
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone)
Collegium Vocale Siegen*
Cologne Chamber Orchestra/Helmut Müller-Brühl
rec. Sendesaal Köln, Germany, 30 May-1 June 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557616 [50:33]

For those who want to investigate Bach’s cantatas, but are not ready to purchase a pilgrimage's worth in one go, it is hard to know where to start. Do you simply grab a Brilliant Classics or Hänssler box and hope for the best? Or do you pick your favourite feast day from the church calendar and snap up the relevant instalment on Soli Deo Gloria? Or choose an issue at random from Masaki Suzuki’s ongoing cycle on BIS?

Naxos has an alternative answer. Bucking the budget label trend, Naxos is steadily releasing individual discs of Bach's cantatas built around a single solo voice. Last year there was a wonderful volume of cantatas for alto, one of Kevin Sutton's Recordings of the Year for 2006 and an ideal introduction to the world of Bach's cantatas. This disc of cantatas for bass is another great place to start, or to continue.

Our guide is bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann, who brings to these cantatas all of his experience as a lieder singer. He clearly thinks about every word he sings, shaping each phrase not only with feeling, but with the right feeling. His recitatives are models and his diction is perfect.

The two arias of the first cantata, BWV 56, offer a wonderful contrast between thoughtful melancholy and unforced joy. The second aria is simply wonderful here, with Christian Hommel's oboe and Müller-Brachmann's voice dancing happily around each other, with only a light organ continuo by way of accompaniment.

I was impressed by Müller-Brachmann's rendition of the opening aria of BWV 82. Here it has a feeling of relaxed contentment, rather than the melancholy which a less thoughtful singer would be tempted to bring to it, given its minor key. Müller-Brachmann is not quite on top of his game in the gorgeous second aria. At the slower tempo, chinks appear in his armour – an unevenness of tone across his range, and tendency to unsteadiness in sustained notes and phrases. He recovers for the final aria and overall his performance is satisfying. Unlike the other two cantatas on this disc, BWV 82 comprises three arias, linked by recitatives, for bass voice alone.

BWV 158, which like BWV 82 was written for the Feast of the Purification of Our Lady, is the shortest of the three cantatas on this disc. Müller-Brachmann's sensitive recitatives frame an aria in which he is joined by Daniel Rothert's solo flute and interjections from the ladies of the chorus. As in BWV 56, the choir also contributes a final chorale in clean, clear voice.

Throughout, the playing of the Cologne Chamber Orchestra is delightful. Caught in a vivid acoustic, their playing – period style on modern instruments – is full of delectable details, but completely at the service of the vocal line. The light organ continuo is delectable, and Christian Hommel brings playing of great sensitivity to his numerous solo turns.

The booklet includes insightful liner notes by Peter Reichelt, but no texts or translations. These are available from the Naxos website. German speakers will not miss them though, so clear is Müller-Brachmann's articulation.

If you are looking for the best possible recording of these three cantatas on one disc, sung to within an inch of perfection, there is really only one man for the job, and that man is Thomas Quasthoff. For the budget conscious, though, Müller-Brachmann is a commendable second best.

Tim Perry


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