musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Arias and Duets

Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzosopranoa
Karin Roman, sopranob; Anders J. Dahlinc, Tomas Medicid, tenor; Jakob Bloch Jespersen, basse; Patrick Beaugiraud, oboe d'amoref; Fredrik From, violing; Lars Ulrik Mortensen, organh
Concerto Copenhagen
Dir: Lars Ulrik Mortensen

rec: June 2008, Copenhagen, Garnisonskirken
Archiv - 00289 477 7467 (© 2009) (57'04")

Freue dich, erlöste Schar (BWV 30): Kommt, ihr angefocht'nen Sündera; Geist und Seele wird verwirret (BWV 35): Sinfoniah; Gott ist unsre Zuversicht (BWV 197): Schläfert allen Sorgenkummeraf; St Matthew Passion (BWV 244): Erbarme dichag; Magnificat in D (BWV 243): Et misericordiaac; Mass in b minor (BWV 232): Agnus Deia; O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 60): O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwortac; Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut (BWV 117): Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gutabde; Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (BWV 99): Wenn des Kreuzes Bitterkeitenab; Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12): Sinfonia; Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten (BWV 74): Nichts kann mich erretten; Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54): Widerstehe doch der Sündea

In general I am not a great fan of discs with arias from cantatas and oratorios of Bach. To me it seems rather problematic to lift them from their context. As our listening habits are as inauthentic as they are there is no need to increase that problem by performing arias as independent pieces. Having said that it makes a difference how a singer approaches the material he has chosen. I have heard too many discs by singers who seem to think their career is not complete without having recorded some Bach at least once. They seem to use the music to display their capabilities rather than to submit their skills to the composer and his music.

What we have here is quite different. Anne Sofie von Otter is not new to Bach: early in her career she was a member of the Stockholm Bach Choir and sang quite a lot of Bach. She also participated in Nikolaus Harnoncourt's recording of Bach's motets with this choir which had a lasting influence of her perception of Bach and of baroque music in general. She also has sung other baroque music, for instance with Reinhard Goebel and his former ensemble Musica antiqua Köln.

For some time she stayed away from Bach because there was so much other interesting repertoire she wanted to perform. Returning to Bach she has not put this programme together overnight. I am impressed by the way she has prepared the recording: borrowing recordings of every single cantata by Bach, listening to them and making notes in the process and by doing so she discovered many unknown arias. As a result we have a programme here which is quite different from the common Bach recital by mezzosopranos or altos.

Yes, we get 'Erbarme dich' from the St Matthew Passion and the 'Agnus Dei' from the Mass in b minor, but we also hear 'Kommt, ihr angeocht'nen Sünder' from Cantata 30 and 'Nichts kann mich erretten' from Cantata 74, arias which are certainly not immediately recognized by the common music lover. It is also a sympethetic gesture that she didn't only want her own voice to shine: the disc contains three duets, the opening chorus of Cantata 117 and two instrumental pieces.

The cooperation with Concerto Copenhagen is a real blessing. It is clear from the start that Anne Sofie von Otter and the orchestra are congenial partners and share the same approach to the music. The first item on this disc, the opening aria from Cantata 54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde, immediately catches the ear by the relatively fast pace and the strong dynamic accents. It helps to express the content of this aria, and Ms Von Otter is especially impressive in the use of her powerful low register. That is also the case in 'Nichts kann mich erretten' from Cantata 74, Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten.

The 'showstoppers' are equally expressive. I had liked a little less vibrato in 'Erbarme dich' - as in some passages in other items - but Anne Sofie von Otter resists the temptation to just sing beautifully: it is the text which is in the centre here. The same is true of the 'Agnus Dei' from the Mass in b minor which is getting a very moving performance by Ms Von Otter and the orchestra.

The singers who were asked to participate are treated on equal terms: it is great to hear how Anne Sofie von Otter adapts her singing to Karin Roman and Anders J. Dahlin respectively, who both deliver fine performances of their parts.

I also like to underline the excellent playing of Concerto Copenhagen which was Ms Von Otter's choice to make this disc with. The Sinfonia from Cantata 35 is getting a vibrant performance, with a brilliant solo part from Lars Ulrik Mortensen. The violin solo in 'Erbarme dich' and the part of the oboe d'amore in the aria 'Schläfert alle Sorgenkummer' are beautifully executed.

Isn't there anything to complain about? Yes, there is. The Latin texts (Magnificat, Mass in b minor) are sung with an Italian pronunciation which is historically unjustified. Singing an aria is one thing, singing a chorale quite another. In the duet from O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort Anne Sofie von Otter sings the chorale and that is one of the least satisfying parts of this disc. The last item is the opening chorus from Cantata 117, Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut, and here the four voices don't really blend. Lastly, it is interesting to hear about Anne Sofie von Otter's ideas about this production and how it has come into existence, but I also had liked to read something about the music. That is all the more important as I could well imagine some people are going to purchase this disc because they admire Anne Sofie von Otter without knowing much about Bach's cantatas.

I have to admit I was sceptical about this disc for several reasons: first of all because of its concept and secondly because I have never particularly liked Anne Sofie von Otter's voice. That hasn't changed: it is not a voice I feel attracted to. But I have no reservations about recommending this disc which is a testimony to Ms Von Otter's musical intelligence and her artistic sincerity. And when people who are not regularly listening to Bach are playing this disc they will not only hear his music in expressive performances, but also get acquainted with less familiar pieces. What else could we ask for?

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Anne Sofie von Otter
Concerto Copenhagen

CD Reviews