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CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Solo Cantatas

[I] "Cantatas BWV 169 & 82"
Le Banquet Céleste
Dir: Damien Guillon
rec: Nov 2018, Bouclier (F), Église Réformée
Alpha - 448 (© 2019) (74'07")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (BWV 662)c; Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (BWV 663)c; Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (BWV 664)c; Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (BWV 169)abe; Ich habe genug (BWV 82)ad; Prelude and fugue in a minor (BWV 543)c

Damien Guillon, altoa
Céline Scheen, sopranob; Nicholas Scott, tenorb; Benoît Arnould, bassb
Maude Gratton, organ (soloc)
Patrick Beaugiraud, oboed, oboe d'amoree; Jean-Marc Philippe, oboe d'amore; Guillaume Cuiller, taille; Julien Debordes, bassoon; Marie Rouquié, Simon Pierre, violin; Deirdre Dowling, viola; Ageet Zweistra, cello; Thomas de Pierrefeu, double bass; Kevin Manent-Navratil, harpsichord

[II] "Cantatas BWV 170 & 82"
Anna Wall, mezzo-sopranoa; Lisandro Abadie, bass-baritoneb
Musique des Lumièresb
Dir: Facundo Agudin
rec: Oct 12 - -14, 2016, Porrentruy (CH), Salle de l'Inter
IBS Classical - IBS 102017 (© 2017) (53'48")
Liner-notes: E/ESP; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Sebastian BACH: Ich habe genug (BWV 82)b; Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170)a; William BYRD (1543-1623): Ye sacred musesa; JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1450-1521): Déploration sur la mort d'Ockeghem (Nimphes des bois)

Anne-Lise Teruel, transverse flute; Nathalie Gullung, oboe; Nicolas Michel, bassoon; Afonso Fesch, Miri Yoo, Janina Müller, Juan María Braceras, Rafael Martínez, Luis Alfredo Montes Meneses, Orsolya Sepsi, Mathias Inoue, violin; Coline Ormond, violin, viola; Antonio Lech Uszynski, Pablo Salvá Peralta, Caroline Vischer, viola; Bruno Hurtado, Deborah Tolksdorf, viola da gamba, cello; Yamila Pedrosa Ahmed, double bass; Paul Kieffer, lute; Simon Peguiron, organ


Between mid-1726 and early 1727 Johann Sebastian Bach composed a remarkable number of solo cantatas. The three included on the two discs under review here all date from this period. Two of them, Ich habe genug and Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, are settings of texts by Christoph Birkmann (1703-1771), a theologian who was from 1724 to 1727 a student at Leipzig University. The common feature of his libretti is that they are written from the perspective of the believer. That is why the word "ich" (I) takes an important part in his texts. The text of Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust is from the pen of the poet Georg Christian Lehms, who studied at Leipzig University and became court librarian in Darmstadt.

Ich habe genug is one of Bach's most famous compositions and has been recorded many times by singers of different pitches. That can be explained from the fact that it has been preserved in four different versions. Originally conceived for bass with an obbligato part for the oboe, Bach later made an adaptation for soprano, in which the oboe part was given to the transverse flute. A third version is for mezzo-soprano, and here the obbligato part is for oboe again. Lastly, Bach returned to the bass, but here he added an obbligato part for the oboe da caccia in the second aria, 'Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen'. This aria is the main reason why this cantata is so popular. Apparently it was very much liked in Bach's circle as well, as his wife Anna Magdalena included a reduction for soprano and basso continuo in her Notenbüchlein.

Damien Guillon opens his recording with a performance of Ich habe genug. As this version is scored for mezzo-soprano, and not for alto, it requires a solid high register. Guillon has no problems with the top notes whatsoever, and he does not turn to singing them at full power, as so many singers do when they have to use the upper end of their register. The first aria is sung with a strong amount of intimacy, which suits its character and text quite well. Guillon sings the ensuing recitative with some rhythmic freedom. The word "ach" often gets too little attention, and that is the case here as well. It is a typical example of an exclamatio, an important rhetorical device. The second aria receives an outstanding performance in a moderate tempo; the contrasts between the various sections come off perfectly. The closing aria is joyful, but Guillon resists the temptation to exaggerate the tempo. This performance is probably the best I have ever heard as far as the mezzo-soprano version is concerned.

Gott soll allein mein Herze haben is not only notable for its scoring for alto, but also for its obbligato organ part. The cantata opens with a sinfonia for organ and strings. In modern performance practice, the organ part is often played on a small instrument, for practical reasons. Here the performers could make use of the large organ in the church where this recording was made. It results in a sparkling and swinging account of the sinfonia; I have never heard such a brilliant performance. The organ also plays an obbligato role in the two arias. In 'Stirb in mir, Welt', the alto and the organ blend perfectly. Guillon explores the dramatic elements in this aria to the full; I can't imagine a more incisive interpretation of the closing lines. In the second section, he effectively differentiates between the arioso and recitative sections. The transitions are full of drama, and here the use of a large organ is of additional value. Guillon performs the recitative sections with exactly the right rhythmic freedom, resulting in a truly speech-like performance. The cantata closes with a nice performance of a chorale, for which three additional singers come in.

Like in the ensemble's previous disc with solo cantatas, Maude Gratton plays some organ works. Three different arrangements of the hymn Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr and the Prelude and fugue in a minor (BWV 543) receive outstanding performances. The latter work has passages for pedal solo, which come off very well on this instrument. A feature of these performances is their transparency, which is not only due to the interpretation of Maude Gratton (articulation, registration), but also the excellent recording. The acoustic of the church is just right.

This disc is definitely one of the best Bach discs I have heard in recent years. The two cantatas are at the top of my list of favourite performances. They will be hard to surpass.

A look at the programme of the second disc raises questions. What may be the reason to include pieces from a different time and of a different character in a programme of Bach cantatas? Their inclusion is inspired by the longing for death, which is expressed in particular in the closing arias of these cantatas: "I look forward to dying" (BWV 82) and "It sickens me to live longer" (BWV 170). In the Renaissance, composers wrote a déploration to express their grief about the death of a person. In the case of Josquin Desprez's Déploration sur la mort d'Ockeghem, the subject is Johannes Ockeghem, one of the greatest masters of the Renaissance and an early representative of that great Franco-Flemish school. William Byrd composed his consort song Ye sacred muses at the occasion of the death of his teacher Thomas Tallis, closing with the line "Tallis is dead, and Music dies". The text of both pieces is printed in the booklet, but only Byrd's song is given a vocal performance: the upper part is sung by Anna Wall, the parts for viole da gamba by the strings of the ensemble. That was not a great idea, as it seriously compromises its character. However, the performance of Josquin's piece is much worse. An instrumental performance of vocal music was quite common in the Renaissance, but with an ensemble of (too many) baroque instruments, little is left of its subtle expression.

But then, in all honesty, the performances of Bach's cantatas are not any better. Anna Wall sings Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust in a rather straightforward manner. There is little differentiation between good and bad notes and the performance as a whole is rather unidiomatic. Her incessant vibrato - on almosy every note - is a nuisance and completely unstylish. The best thing in her performance is that she takes some rhythmic freedom in the recitative 'Die Welt, das Sündenhaus'. In the second and third arias, Bach includes an obbligato part for the organ. In the second the two organ parts are allocated to the two manuals. As in most recordings, here a small organ with one manual is used, and because of that, the performers have turned to a conventional solution: the highest of the two parts is played on the transverse flute. Once again, this proves that Bach played a large organ in his cantata performances. It is inevitable to use a small organ in most live performances, but one would wish that for a studio production, performers would look for a venue with a suitable large organ.

I don't need to complain about an incessant vibrato in Lisandro Abadie's performance of Ich habe genug, but otherwise there is little to be happy about. His performance is even more straightforward than Anna Wall's account of her cantata. All syllables are given the same weight, and there is no text expression at all. In the first aria, the oboe part opens with a rising minor sixth, but the two notes in between are hardly audible due to a lack of articulation. The tempo is pretty slow (8'19" vs 7'01" in Guillon's performance). The recitatives are sung in a very strict rhythm, which is simply wrong. 'Sclummert ein, ihr matten Augen' is rather boring, without any substantial differentiation. The closing aria is faster than in Guillon's performance, but because of a lack of differentiation it has no impact and is rather superficial.

This disc does not give any reason for enjoyment. I can't see any argument to recommend it.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Lisandro Abadie
Le Banquet Céleste
Musique des Lumières

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