Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sacred Cantatas for Soprano
Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht, BWV 52 [14:10]
Ich bin vergnugt mit meinem Glucke, BWV 84 [15:14]
Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, BWV 199 [23:36]
Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51 [17:37]
Siri Thornhill (soprano); Cologne Bach Vocal Ensemble; Cologne Chamber Orchestra/Helmut Müller-Brühl
rec. Deutschlandfunk Sendesaal des Funkhauses, Cologne, 19-22 February 2007. Stereo. DDD
NAXOS 8.570453 [70:36]

A series of recordings from Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra may be about to change the way we think about Bach performed on modern instruments. The Brandenburg Concertos have already been released, but the Matthew Passion and the Christmas Oratorio are the works that have the potential to break the mould, or at least overturn the ingrained prejudices of the recording industry and the CD public.

Until that happens, recordings like this one of the soprano cantatas are destined to remain at best specialist interest items. As with almost all modern instrument Bach recordings, the music here struggles to take off. In a just world, it could be considered on its own merits, but the inevitable comparisons with the likes of Gardiner and Suzuki make the strings sound hopelessly homogenised and the winds very much ripieno, struggling, but ultimately failing to float above the texture in solos and obbligatos.

The Cologne Chamber Orchestra has a curious history. It was founded in 1923 by Hermann Abendroth and later worked extensively with Otto Klemperer. What Klemperer would have made of their decision in 1976 to switch to baroque instruments is anybody’s guess. Stranger still was their move in 1987 back to modern instruments, while still espousing ‘the principles of historical performance-practice’. What that translates to here is a certain restraint with vibrato and rubato, a light-sounding chamber organ for continuo, and a minuscule string section. Otherwise, this is essentially a modern recording conforming to modern artistic and technical principles. It’s a studio recording, so the resonance is presumably courtesy of the recording technology. The result is a warm, comfortable aural environment, pleasant but without ever a hint of the atmosphere of a church.

The Norwegian soprano Siri Karoline Thornhill has an attractive tone and very natural phrasing style. She applies a light vibrato to the longer notes, weighing her sound more to the modern than the baroque. Some of the higher notes are a little snatched, and some of the faster runs get a little congested, but on the whole it is a competent and attractive performance. By the way, check out her website, a minor masterpiece of Flash coding:

The Cologne Bach Vocal Ensemble also give serviceable renditions of the chorales. Again, not as sculpted or impassioned as what you might expect from Gardiner, say, but I’ve no complaints about the articulation, balance or tuning.

Cantata no. 52 Falsche Welt opens with a reworking of the Sinfonia from the 1st Brandenburg Concerto. The eleven years the orchestra spent on baroque instruments have shaken most of the ponderousness of Klemperer out of their Brandenburg, but there is still something of that inter-war Bach sound here. In fact, this opening movement is somewhere between new and old. There is a period performance lightness to the phrasing, but the roundness of tone from the modern instruments categorically distinguishes it from the sounds of the baroque purists. Thornhill gives us some heartfelt recitatives, ‘False world, I trust thee not’ giving her an opportunity for some operatic passion.

Cantata no. 84 Ich bin vergnüngt mit meinem Glücke opens with the sort of flowing oboe obbligato aria that you might expect to hear at a brisk pace these days. This slower reading emphasises timbral warmth over contrapuntal intrigue, and is no worse for that. The ensemble exposition to the central aria Ich esse mit Freuden is similarly voluptuous, and the balance of all these contrapuntal lines with the voice, when it enters, is exemplary, a demonstration of the advantages of taking Bach out of the church and playing him in the recording studio instead.

Cantata no.199 Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut is the most sombre of the set, and benefits from Thornhill’s combination of operatic expression and baroque restraint. Long, impassioned phrases, with occasional discrete ornamentation and just a touch of vibrato, all add up to an attractive and convincing take on Bach’s vocal lines, whatever the purists might think.

Cantata no.51 Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! is the best known of these cantatas, largely I suspect because of the interplay of voice and trumpet obbligato. The skills of the balance engineers are again much in evidence here, especially in the way that the trumpet’s lines are always clearly distinguished, yet always subordinate to the singer. A little more bounce from the strings in the opening aria might have been nice, but Thornhill projects enough energy through her phrasing to keep the momentum. Some very attractive singing in the other two arias as well, that just about compensates from the disappointing lack of crispness from the strings.

But as I say, most of my reservations about this disc stem from familiarity with the sounds of baroque instruments in this repertoire. Thornhill is clearly tuned in to the aesthetic of the orchestra, and she does them full justice by matching their balance of baroque and modern sensibilities. Ultimately, though, I can only recommend this to fans of Bach on modern instruments. Personally, I don’t know any, and while Riccardo Chailly may be about to change all that, the Cologne Chamber Orchestra don’t quite have what it takes.

Gavin Dixon