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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Dialogue Cantatas
Selig ist der Mann, der die Anfechtung erduldet, BWV 57 (1725) [20:59]
Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn, BWV 152 (1714) [16:40]
Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen, BWV 49 (1726) [22:56]
Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone), Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)
Members of the RIAS Kammerchor
Berliner Barock Solisten/Rainer Kussmaul.
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, May and June 2007. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6591 [61:00]
Experience Classicsonline

This follow-up to Thomas Quasthoff's superb disc of Bach cantatas for bass furthers his claim to the title of today's finest male Bach singer.
There are two major points of difference between that earlier disc and this one.  Firstly, and more obviously from the album's title, these cantatas are built around dialogue between bass baritone and soprano.  Secondly, and related to the first distinction, all three cantatas – though in the case of BWV 152 only the final duet – cast Quasthoff in the role of Jesus, requiring more character acting and less Lieder-singer introspection than the three cantatas that made up the programme on his earlier album.  In fact, it is not much of an overstatement to describe these cantatas as miniature operas, comprising loving conversation between the Saviour and the soul He has ransomed.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in BWV 49, which depicts Christ as the bridegroom and the ransomed soul as His bride.
As it turns out, Quasthoff’s acting is almost as good as his singing.  His remarkably secure voice remains full and warm, never becoming declamatory even as he injects exuberance into his delivery.  Allied to this quality is his keen sensitivity to text.  There is a hushed poignancy to Quasthoff's singing in the first aria of BWV 57, as if in saying “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation”, Jesus is acknowledging how difficult that endurance can be.  By contrast, the energy and Handelian triumph of the second bass aria in BWV 57 is beautifully and joyfully communicated.  He is warmly encouraging in the exhortatory first aria of BWV 152 and the interplay between his voice and the solo oboe is beautiful.  In BWV 49, his cooing first aria and tender recitatives depict a human and loving Christ.
Of course, these being dialogue cantatas, the quality of Quasthoff’s singing alone would not justify a recommendation.  Fortunately he has an excellent partner in Dorothea Röschmann.  She brings a similar sensitivity to the text, brightening the mood of BWV 152 with her solo aria and singing with wonderfully breathy expression in her solo aria in BWV 57.  Her voice rings with an attractive vibrato and even though there is quite a contrast between the timbre of her head voice and chest voice, she uses this contrast to expressive ends.
The duets and conversational recitatives are beautifully choreographed.  Only in the duet that concludes BWV 49 did I feel unsatisfied.  This cantata is as glorious a celebration of conjugal love as you will hear, but in this performance as a whole, an in the final duet in particular, both singers and the musicians supporting them seem too cool.  Bach’s text can handle a more overtly erotic treatment, and a bit more breathlessness in the soprano aria and exuberance in the final duet would have made a very good performance even better.
Throughout the disc, the contribution of the Berliner Barock Solisten is lovely and supportive of the voices.  The band never draws attention to itself while the singers have centre stage, but are moments of beauty that are worth noting.  The overture to BWV 152, with wonderful interplay between solo oboe and recorder, is nicely pointed and throughout the programme organist Raphael Alpermann offers a continuo that is warm but unobtrusive in arias and recitatives.  He shines in the sinfonia that opens BWV 49 – this will be familiar to many listeners as the third movement of the concerto for keyboard BWV 1053 – and in the ornamental writing that weaves around the voices in that cantata’s final duet.  Thirteen voices from of the RIAS Kammerchor contribute a bright and perfectly blended chorale to conclude BWV 57, but are not heard from again.
The recorded sound is immediate and finely detailed, though there often seems to be more air around Röschmann’s voice than Quasthoff’s, for example in the duet that concludes BWV 152.  Dorothea Schroder's fine liner-notes complete a very attractive issue.
Even if you have been collecting any of the excellent cycles of Bach cantatas being compiled by the likes of Gardiner, Suzuki and Kuijken, this disc is well worth having.
Tim Perry


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