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CD: Crotchet

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen BWV51 (1730) [16.35]
Ich habe genug BWV82a (1727) [24.14]
Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut BWV199 (1714) [22.52]
Natalie Dessay (soprano)
Le Concert d’Astrée/Emmanuelle Haïm
rec. Church of Notre Dame du Liban, Paris, France, 2-4 January 2008; 6-24 February 2008, DDD
Bonus DVD
Live footage from the recording sessions [52.00], a film by ESTI
Picture format: NTSC/Colour/16:9
Sound format: Linear PCM stereo
Booklet notes in English, French and German, with sung texts in the original German and translations in English and French
VIRGIN CLASSICS 5193142 [63.55; DVD: 52:00]
Experience Classicsonline

I must admit that I was intrigued when I received this latest recital offer from French soprano Natalie Dessay. Widely celebrated for her intuitive, exciting performances on stage and the easiness with which she sings extremely difficult coloratura roles, Ms Dessay’s decision to record a CD with solely Bach cantatas did not appear the most obvious choice. Delightfully, although her choice might not be obvious, it was definitely right. From the tasteful, stylish packaging, in subtle black and white, with only the composer’s name in bright orange, to the insightful performance of the orchestra and Ms Dessay’s fresh singing and clear German diction, this disc is a wonderful gem and a joy to discover.
In his time, Johann Sebastian Bach was better known as a virtuoso organist rather than as the brilliant composer we have come to know and admire today. His sacred compositions, choral or instrumental, contain a positive energy and a seemingly easy freedom that conceal his unbelievable musical rigour. His style was innovative and complex, often containing religious and numerical symbols that fit perfectly together and that, even today, are still profoundly puzzling. For this, he is considered by many experts to be the greatest composer that ever lived. I would hardly disagree, however, I must confess that some of his music, perhaps due to the religious content, leaves me untouched. Arguably and at the risk of infuriating Bach enthusiasts and devoted scholars, I think that although his music is undoubtedly intellectual and brilliant, it lacks human sentiment, meaning contradictory feelings, conflict and powerful emotional expression. I am pleased to say that this CD with three Bach Cantatas for solo soprano has managed to change my mind. This is not only due to the music but mostly to Natalie Dessay’s beautiful, remarkably pure rendition of the soprano parts, and also Emmanuelle Haïm’s expert interpretation, leading Le Concert d’Astrée in a harmonious, suitably radiant performance.
The recital begins with perhaps the most famous of the composer’s cantatas: Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, in four movements, or five if the finale, the Alleluja is considered independently. Dessay delivers all of them with grace and purity of tone. Her voice sounds playful yet respectful, luminous and precise but never dry or indifferent. In the first aria, in the recitative and in the chorale, the trumpet solos are wonderfully played by distinguished musician Neil Brough. Particularly during the first aria, the trumpet engages in a finely tuned “duet” with Dessay’s voice; both artists brilliantly displaying Bach’s virtuosic demands on his soloists. The second aria is my favourite of the four movements, with its difficult melodic. Although marked in the key of A minor, it is not melancholic or sad but touchingly beautiful. Dessay sings it to perfection, with an almost angelic quality and demonstrating a great understanding of the composer’s possible intentions.
The second work, Ich habe genug, is to my mind the jewel in the crown of this precious CD, even though it is one of Bach’s bleakest cantatas. Written in its original form for a bass singer, with oboe, strings and basso continuo, it is a dark and gloomy work. Its depressing message is summed up in the final verses of the last aria: Ich freue mich auf meinem Tod, ach! hätt’ er sich schon eingefunden. Da entkomm ich aller Not, die mich noch auf der Welt gebunden [With joy I look forward to my death, would that it were here already. Then I shall escape all the distress, which afflicts me here on earth]. The version used in this CD is the one where the bass part is replaced by a soprano and the oboe by a flute, with minimal alterations. The music though terribly sad is also poignantly beautiful. Dessay comes into her own in the performance of this cantata, putting her consummate skills as a dramatic actress to great use and delivering a moving, deeply felt interpretation. One senses the despair in every word she sings, the depressing mood in each phrase she utters and the sadness within a heart that really has had enough and has completely lost the will to live. It is brilliantly sung; wonderfully cushioned by Le Concert d’Astrée, and beautifully accompanied on the flutes by Alexis Kossenko in the first and last movements, and Olivier Bénichou in the second.
The third and final cantata in this recital, Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, is a more complex and ambitious work by Bach, formed of eight sections that alternate between arias and recitatives. The theme is of humility and repentance, and its vocal parts are technically challenging, demanding a highly accomplished singer; and this we certainly have in Dessay. The first aria is arguably the most beautiful; a poignant supplication, wonderfully delivered by Dessay, who is brilliantly seconded by Patrick Beaugiraud, performing the oboe solo. The final aria, again with an oboe solo, is joyful, with dance-like rhythms that perfectly suit Dessay’s voice. It is an optimistic finale to a work of great beauty.
This recording comes also with a bonus DVD, which is very interesting and enjoyable in its own right. It contains live footage from the recording sessions, which took place at the Church of Notre-Dame du Liban in Paris. The film intentionally creates an atmosphere of peace where one can retreat to pray if one so wishes. It is tastefully and stylishly filmed, with candles in strategic places around the musicians. Every person and each object are enveloped in a golden glow, giving the appearance of warm sun-light filtered through the windows of the church. The few words exchanged between singer, conductor and musicians are in French, and there are no subtitles but the dialogue is scarce so that a non-French speaker will not miss anything. The emphasis is put on the care taken with the interpretation and delivery of the music and on Dessay’s singing. It is wonderful to watch how she immerses herself in the compositions, as if her being dissolves and becomes part of one single musical entity. The film confirms the singer’s artistry, her delicate high notes, her elegant phrasing and her fine command of languages. She sings the texts to all cantatas in the original German with the same natural flair and adroit pronunciation as she would in her native French. The film also showcases effectively the friendly relationship and artistic understanding between Dessay, Emmanuelle Haïm and the musicians of Le Concert d’Astrée. She has collaborated extensively with the conductor and the orchestra on many occasions, both for recordings as well as for live concerts. There is an easiness, respect and healthy mutual admiration in the way they interact with each other and dedicate themselves to the music. Simply inspiring and lovely to watch.
This recital is dedicated by Dessay to Martin Luther King. Whether one enjoys Bach’s music and whether one appreciates this singer’s artistry or not, is almost irrelevant; this is a magnificent sequence from a mature artist, who patently comprehends the beauty and purity of the music. It deserves to feature in any classical music collection.
Margarida Mota-Bull


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