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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Cantatas for alto

[I] "Solo Cantatas"
Bernarda Fink, mezzosopranobcd; Wolfgang Zerer, organbcd
Vocalconsort Berlinc; Freiburger Barockorchesterbcd
Dir: Petra Müllejans

rec: April 2008, Berlin, Teldex Studio
Harmonia mundi - HMC 902016 (© 2009) (76'20")

[II] "Cantatas, Vol. 37"
Robin Blaze, alto; Masaaki Suzuki, organbcd
Bach Collegium Japan
Dir: Masaaki Suzuki

rec: August 2005, Erfurt, St. Crucisd; Sept 2006, Kobe, Shoin Women's University (chapel)abc
BIS - SACD-1621 (© 2007) (77'21")

Bekennen will ich deinen Namen (BWV 200)a; Geist und Seele wird verwirret (BWV 35)b; Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (BWV 169)c; Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170)d

The three cantatas for alto which are the subject of these two discs belong to the best-known and most popular cantatas by Bach, and many altos, male and female, have recorded them. These are remarkable works because they are written for a solo voice, and that is the first time Bach composed such works in Leipzig. Only two cantatas of this kind were composed in Weimar, Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54) for alto and Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 199) for soprano. The three cantatas for alto all date from the same year, 1726, and were written within a month. They were followed by other cantatas for solo voice, for instance the famous Ich habe genung (BWV 82).

There is another interesting aspect of the three cantatas for alto: Bach re-uses a number of concerto movements which he had previously composed. In all three the organ plays a concertante role, and it is thought they were to be played by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach who was 15 at the time they were performed. This also means that not only the vocal soloist but also the organist plays a crucial role in the performance of these cantatas. It is here where these two performances strongly differ.

The director of the Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki, plays the obbligato organ parts himself, and he does so very well, even though he now and then allows himself to play some ornaments in the style of his teacher, Ton Koopman, which tend to be a little exaggerated. The organ parts are one of the main fallacies of the recording by Bernarda Fink and the Freiburger Barockorchester.

In the second aria, 'Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen' from Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170) the two obbligato upper parts are to be played by the two manuals of the organ. Here apparently only a small organ with just one manual has been used, and therefore one of the parts is played on the transverse flute, a fact which is nowhere mentioned in the programme notes. Also not mentioned is the fac that the obbligato organ part in the aria 'Gott has alles wohlgemacht' from Geist und Seele wird verwirret (BWV 35) is played by a cello, for which I can't find any reason. But this cello part is played very well, something which can't be said of the organ parts. In the three Sinfonias - the opening movement of Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (BWV 169) and the Concerto and the Sinfonia which open the first and second part respectively of Cantata 35 - are simply boring and lacking in imagination. It is probably because the organ has a very limited disposition that it isn't clearly audible in the last aria of Cantata 170, 'Mir ekelt mehr zu leben'.

But is not just the organ part which is disappointing. Bernarda Fink is an excellent singer, but I fail to see any reasons why she is so often invited for the baroque repertoire. Her continuous vibrato is very annoying and unacceptable in the light of what we know about how vibrato was used in the baroque era. Her voice lacks the versatility Robin Blaze shows in his recording. I have never been really attracted to his voice, and here it is sometimes a bit sharp as well, but his interpretations are really a class ahead of Ms Fink's (although his German pronunciation is less than perfect). His text expression is excellent and the arias are really beautifully sung. He performs the recitatives in truly speechlike manner, whereas Bernarda Fink is too rigid in her treatment of the rhythm. But the recitatives come off best in her recording as she doesn't miss any opportunity to single out elements of the text.

What makes her performance really hard to swallow are the slow tempi. The beautiful aria 'Stirb in mir' from Cantata 169 takes 5'43" whereas Blaze only needs 4'35", which makes this aria flow much more naturally. In his book on Bach's cantatas the German Bach scholar Alfred Dürr states that the closing aria of Cantata 35, 'Ich wünsche nur bei Gott zu leben', has a dance-like character. One wouldn't guess while listening to Bernarda Fink and the Freiburger Barockorchester, whereas it is clearly noticeable in the recording by Robin Blaze and the Bach Collegium Japan.

The fact that the latter need less time for the three cantatas gives enough space to add the aria Bekennen will ich deinen Namen (BWV 200) which is probably the only extant fragment of a lost cantata. It is again given a fine performance by Robin Blaze and the Bach Collegium Japan. Their recording is by far the better of the two. The only two critical remarks concern the acoustics which are too reverberant in my view - a feature of all recordings of the Bach Collegium Japan - and the frequent use of a harpsichord in the basso continuo alongside the organ. I am not sure about the historical foundation o this practice.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Bach Collegium Japan
Freiburger Barockorchester

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