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Cantatas for Soprano

 

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantata BWV170 Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (Trinity 6, 1726) [21:54]
Cantata BWV52 Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht: Sinfonia (Trinity 23, 1726) [4:04]
Cantata BWV54 Widerstehe doch der Sünde (Lent 3, 1715?) [10:47]
Cantata BWV174 Ich liebe den Höchsten: Sinfonia (1729) [5:51]
Cantata BWV82 Ich habe genug (Purification, 1727) [22:14]
Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor)
Arcangelo/Jonathan Cohen
rec. St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, 11-13 May 2015. DDD
Texts and translations included
HYPERION CDA68111 [64:51]

Both Richard Wigmore in his excellent notes accompanying this CD and Alfred Dürr in his classic book, The Cantatas of J S Bach propound an entirely plausible theory about the three cantatas for solo voice here recorded by Iestyn Davies. It is that they were composed because at the times in question Bach had available to him individual expert singers capable of performing this demanding music. It seems to me that such singers must have been expert not only in the technical sense but also in terms of their maturity in putting across the feelings expressed by Bach in these cantatas. Dürr further points out that the Leipzig alto to whom BWV170 was entrusted on 28 July 1726 soon faced further challenges. Six weeks later Bach introduced another solo alto cantata, Geist und Seele wird wevirret BWV35, which is a much longer piece. Then twelve weeks later Gott soll allein mein Herze haben BWV169, another substantial solo alto cantata, was unveiled.

BWV82 followed BWV170 just over six months later – it was first heard on 2 February 1727 - but was composed for bass voice rather than alto. The version that Davies sings is Bach’s refashioning of the cantata for alto. That re-working was probably done in 1735. BWV54 is a much earlier piece. It comes from Bach’s time in Weimar but the date of composition is uncertain. Richard Wigmore believes it was intended for the Third Sunday of Lent, 1715 though Dürr tells us that some scholars have suggested 1713 or 1714 as the year of composition. However, the Lent 1715 argument seems plausible to me. As with the other two cantatas Bach clearly had a fine male alto on hand in Weimar at the time.

BWV54 is quite short: two arias frame a central recitative. ‘Stand firm against all sinning’ the faithful are enjoined in the first aria and in this present performance the purposeful tempo and string playing underline the sentiment. Richard Wigmore draws attention to the “relentless abrasiveness” of Bach’s music. Davies, trenchantly supported by the musicians of Arcangelo, tellingly delivers the message of both words and music. The recitative is an admonitory affair with its reference to ‘whited sepulchres’ – Lutheran congregations of the day were certainly made to feel uncomfortable. In the concluding aria I admired the evenness with which Davies delivers the chromatic passagework while the fugal string writing is admirably clear. I dug out an old favourite for comparison: James Bowman’s 1988 Hyperion recording with the Kings Consort. I’ve owned this CD ever since it came out and have a soft spot for it for many reasons, not the least of which is the very fine cover photograph which shows part of the stunning interior of Tewkesbury Abbey. I was pleased to find, on reading his review that Brian Wilson shares my admiration. However, I now think Davies must take the palm. The respective performances take a somewhat different view of the first aria. Bowman is appreciably steadier – he takes 8:18 against 6:37 in the Davies account – and, by comparison, the effect is to suggest a sense of the sinner weighed down by sin. That’s perfectly tenable but I rather prefer Davies’ more purposeful approach. The other difference is that the Bowman recording, made in the chapel of Wadham College, Oxford, presents the music in a more resonant acoustic. That’s fine, but the new Hyperion gives us more of a feel of intimate chamber music. So Davies has a slight edge over the estimable Bowman.

The opening aria of BWV170 is one of the most heavenly movements in all Bach. The melody is so heart-easing and when it’s sung as is the case here resistance crumbles. The oboe d’amore part, which doubles the first violin line, adds a wonderful poignancy and here the playing – by Katharina Spreckelsen, I presume – is highly sensitive. Davies offers a bewitching sound and a seamless line. This is a quite marvellous performance. Both of the recitatives are done with fine expression. The central aria, ’Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen’ (How those perverted hearts grieve me) is musically stripped to the bone. I love Richard Wigmore’s description that the voice and obbligato organ “wail, writhe and fulminate” above the string parts. Davies sings with no little intensity. The concluding aria is almost jaunty. Though this may seem slightly at odds with at least part of the text, it’s appropriate because the sinner is being depicted dancing for joy at the prospect of death which will unite him with God. For me, Bach’s music suggests this rather more effectively than does his librettist. Here Davies and his colleagues are distinctly lively and the organ part, played by Jonathan Cohen, I assume, bubbles infectiously. Turning again to Bowman, he seems a fraction steadier in the opening aria though the timings are all-but identical; perhaps Davies and Cohen achieve a bit more in the way of natural flow? By contrast Bowman and Robert King take the central aria rather more quickly than Davies/Cohen though both recordings convey the spirit of the music. The Bowman/King performance doesn’t quite have the zest of Davies/Cohen in the closing aria. As for the respective voices Bowman’s tone is a little rounder than what we hear from Davies but it’s marginal: both voices give great satisfaction.

As the Davies recording has been made using period instruments I probably wouldn’t have considered the recording made by Dame Janet Baker in the mid-1960s had not Brian Wilson referenced it when discussing this Hyperion newcomer in his roundup of Christmas 2016 recordings. For this Dame Janet was joined by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and Sir Neville Marriner. I couldn’t resist sampling the opening aria but sampling was fatal: I was hooked. Yes, the recording may be 50 years old – though still sounding well – and yes, the singer may be accompanied by a modern chamber orchestra but in the face of such artistry criticism is silenced. Baker’s singing is heartfelt and in the recitatives – and elsewhere – she evidences a compelling care for the words. Arguably the last aria is too sturdy but that’s a small, subjective point. If you don’t know this recording then I urge you to hear it (review). In passing I noticed that with the exception of Janet Baker the other principal artists on this collection – John Shirley-Quirk, Robert Tear, Marriner and the continuo players, George Malcolm and Sir Philip Ledger – are all now gone; that’s a poignant realisation.

Many of the recordings of BWV82 that I have are by basses or baritones. However, I remember being impressed a few years ago by a recording by Andreas Scholl (review). I have to say that Iestyn Davies fared very well in comparison with his illustrious peer. The opening aria is superbly done on this new recording. Richard Wigmore is absolutely right to refer to it as a “celestial duet” between the voice and the oboe and here Katharina Spreckelsen is an outstanding partner to Davies. I don’t feel that Scholl achieves quite as much flow; he seems to strive a little too hard for expressive effect, slightly to the detriment of the line. At the heart of the cantata lies the great aria, ‘Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen’. (Close in sleep, you weary eyes.) I referred earlier to Davies’ bewitching sound and seamless line; that’s true of this performance also but now he adds an extra dimension. The aria demands a comforting, confiding style and that’s just what Davies brings to it. Scholl’s singing is plangent and lovely but on balance my vote goes to Davies. In the final aria the key word is ‘freue’ which Bach illustrates by florid passagework. Davies gives a performance that accentuates the joyful anticipation in the music. Scholl, by contrast, is a bit more deliberate in his pacing and I don’t find him as joyful as his younger English rival.

In between the three cantatas Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo play sinfonias from two other cantatas. These are both adaptations of movements from the Brandenburg Concertos. The sinfonia from BWV174 is more familiar to us as the first movement of Brandenburg Concerto No 3. However, here Bach spices up his scoring by adding corni da caccia, oboes and bassoon. The sinfonia to BWV52 is better known as the first movement of the First Brandenburg Concerto. Both performances are excellent.

This is a simply outstanding Bach disc. I’ve heard a lot of Iestyn Davies, both on disc and live, but I’m not sure I’ve hear him do anything better than this. His singing is expressive, nuanced and extremely stylish and the voice falls pleasingly on the ear at all times. He consistently puts across the meaning of the words. The playing of Arcangelo is expert and unfailingly stylish and, as I’ve already commented, one has the sense of chamber music-making. Add to all this that the Hyperion recording is very fine and the documentation is up to the label’s usual high standard and this release is a sure-fire winner. I do hope this team will go on to record Bach’s other cantatas for solo alto.

As I write this there are still a couple of weeks of 2016 left. However, this disc will almost certainly be on my shortlist for Recordings of the Year 2017 and it’s going to take something pretty special to dislodge it.

John Quinn

 

 




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