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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Solo Cantatas

[I] Cantatas BWV 51, 82a & 199
Natalie Dessay, soprano
Le Concert d'Astrée
Dir: Emmanuelle Haïm

rec: Jan & Feb 2008, Paris, Paroise Notre-Dame du Liban
Virgin Classics - 235004 2 (CD, DVD) (© 2008) (63'35"; 52')

[II] Cantatas 56, 82 & 158
Thomas Berau, baritone
Heidelberger Studentenkantoreia; Barockorchester L'arpa festante
Dir: Christoph Andreas Schäfer

rec: July 2003, Heidelberg Pfaffengrund, St Marien
Spektral - SRL4-08029 (© 2008) (51'48")

[I] Ich habe genug (BWV 82a); Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (BWV 51); Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 199);
[II] Der Friede sei mit dir (BWV 158)a; Ich habe genug (BWV 82); Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (BWV 56)a

The solo cantatas by Bach are so hugely popular that many singers want to record them. Whether that is such a good idea is more than questionable. Singers who would never be asked to participate in recordings of other cantatas apparently think they have what it takes to perform these cantatas in an appropriate manner. At least, that is what one would hope. I can't quite get rid of the idea that maybe some of them just want to sing them for their own sake, to impress their admirers with their singing rather than do the music justice.

That sounds rather negative. I don't want to question the sincerity of performers per se, but the results of their efforts are more than once questionable. I am afraid that is exactly what is the case with the first disc. Natalie Dessay is an opera singer whom one wouldn't associate with Bach. I wonder who has taken the initiative for this disc. It could well be that it was Emmanuelle Haïm, who is never afraid of working with singers who are not exactly experts in baroque music. I refer here to her recordings of music by Monteverdi and his time with Rolando Villazón, with pretty disastrous results.

I don't want to be too harsh. Considering that Natalie Dessay is anything but a Bach singer the performances are not too bad on first hearing. She keeps her vibrato in check and she really attempts to do justice to the content of the various cantatas. Her German pronunciation isn't perfect, but I have heard far worse. But that is about it.

What is really annoying is Ms Dessay's habit of sliding to a note, which is in particular noticeable in her high register. It is a kind of mannerism which is pretty ugly anyway, but is most certainly out of place in this repertoire. The second main problem is the treatment of the text. Ms Dessay is first and foremost producing sound rather than text. Often the vowels are too long and too often words are not delivered in a truly rhetorical fashion. The principle of 'music as speech' is largely absent here. This is particularly apparent in the recitatives which are also mostly rhythmically too strict. The arias are suffering from too much legato, for instance the very first aria of Cantata 51, which opens this disc. The fourth section of this cantata is a chorale which should be sung as simply as possible, but here she inclines to overinterpretation. The concluding Alleluja is not very well performed, as the soprano, the trumpet and the strings don't really integrate.

That this disc doesn't give many reasons to celebrate is also due to Emmanuelle Haïm, who - one may assume - decides about things like tempo and rhythm. Cantata 82 is especially suffering from inappropriate choices in this regard. This cantata, originally written for bass and oboe, is performed here in the version for soprano and transverse flute. The rhythm of the first aria, 'Ich habe genug', is not very marked because of a lack of dynamic accents in the orchestra. The last line, "Nun wünsch ich noch heute mit Freuden von hinnen zu scheiden", lacks contrast with the preceding episode in this aria. The most famous aria, of course, is 'Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen'. The programme notes rightly refer to this aria as a lullaby, but it is a great pity that so little of this character finds expression in the actual performance. There are two reasons for this. Firstly the tempo is much too slow: here this aria takes almost 11 minutes, whereas in most recordings I have turned to the duration is a little more than 9 minutes. This goes hand in hand with a lack of dynamic accents, and as a result this performance is bland. Yes, it can make the eyes slumber, but not because of the swaying rhythm of a lullaby but rather due to boredom. The closing aria is supposed to be joyful, but here it is not, and again it is the slow tempo which damages its effect. It is called 'dance-like' in the programme notes, but the performance is anything but that.

In comparision the Cantata 199 fares best. As Natalie Dessay is an opera singer it doesn't surprise that the highly dramatic opening recitative is sung rather well. The emotions of the text are well delivered and key words is given good attention to. And in the key aria, 'Tief gebückt und voller Reue', the emotion is well exposed. It is a pity that the bland string playing undermines Ms Dessay's good efforts here. The closing aria, 'Wie freudig ist mein Herz', is too slow and doesn't express the joy the text is about. Because of this the evolution in the content of this cantata is not enough pronounced.

On the whole this disc is disappointing. All cantatas are available in better recordings, and I can't think of any reason why this disc had to be released.

The same can be said, unfortunately, about the second disc. The reason to review it together with Natalie Dessay's is, of course, that it also contains Ich habe genug, this time in the original scoring for bass. I had never heard of Thomas Berau, and most readers probably haven't either. Considering this recording dates from 2003 one wonders whether the record company has done Thomas Berau a favour by releasing it five years after. The biography in the booklet doesn't give his year of birth, but at least at the time this recording was made he was rather young. I hope he has grown since then, because what we have here is not something to get excited about. Maybe the singer hasn't been done a favour by this disc, Bach certainly hasn't.

The interpretations are largely lacking subtlety, as Berau sings mostly too loud and treats the text with too little differentiation. In the very first aria on this disc, the opening aria of Cantata 156, the last lines ("Da leg ich den Kummer auf einmal ins Grab, da wischt mir die Tränen mein Heiland selbst ab") are close to the form of the recitative, but any sense of declamation is absent in Thomas Berau's performance. The recitative 'Ich habe genug' (from Cantata 82) is sung rhythmically too strict, a returning problem in recordings of vocal baroque music. The articulation leaves something to be desired as well. The loudness is really destroying the aria 'Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen' from Cantata 82. Whereas Natalie Dessay's performance can make the eyes slumber due to boredom, here there is no chance of slumbering: soloist and orchestra are far too loud, even on the closing line of the C section: "Süssen Frieden, stille Ruh". It seems Berau doesn't have the tessitura to sing the closing aria as it is notated as he octavates several notes. His loud singing is also problematic in the aria with choir, 'Welt, ade, ich bin dein müde' from Cantata 158, in which the sopranos of the choir are overpowered by Berau.

Apart from its loudness at several moments the playing of the orchestra is the main positive aspect of this disc. But it is very strange that the orchestral performance doesn't synchronise with the singing of Thomas Berau as the former far better observes the rhythmic pulse of Bach's music than Berau.

Like in regard to the first disc I can't see any musical reason for its release.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Le Concert d'Astrée
Natalie Dessay
Thomas Berau

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