musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Cantatas and Arias"

Elizabeth Watts, soprano
The English Concert
Dir: Harry Bicket

rec: Jan 2010, London, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak
Harmonia mundi - HMU 807550 (© 2011) (65'07")

Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret, cantata for the 1st day of Easter (BWV 31): Letzte Stunde, brich herein, aria; Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht, cantata for the 9th Sunday after Trinity (BWV 105): Wie zittern und wanken, aria; Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke, cantata for Sunday Septuagesimae (BWV 84): Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke, aria; Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, cantata for the 15th Sunday after Trinity (BWV 51); Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, cantata for the 11th Sunday after Trinity (BWV 199); Selig ist der Mann, cantata for the 2nd Christmas Day (BWV 57): Ich wünschte mir den Tod, aria

Katharina Spreckelsen, oboe; Mark Bennett, trumpet; Alida Schat, Miles Golding, Graham Cracknell, Thérèse Timoney, Silvia Schweinberger, Walter Reiter, Claire Duff, Iona Davies, Huw Daniel, violin; Alfonso Leal del Ojo, Stefanie Heichelheim, viola; Joseph Crouch, Timothy Kraemer, cello; Peter McCarthy, double bass; Robert Quinney, organ

Every now and then singers of some reputation come up with the wish to record music by Bach. Maybe that is because they love his music, but it could well be motivated by the fact that singing Bach is considered a kind of litmus test of a singer's capabilities. To me that seems nonsense. I can't think of any reason why a singer should feel obliged to sing Bach. If he or she doesn't feel the need and go out of his or her way to avoid him, fine. In many cases it could be even better that way.

In recent years I had that feeling a number of times, when singers were presenting themselves in choices from Bach's vocal oeuvre who better had not done so. Examples are Natalie Dessay and David Daniels. Apart from unsatisfying and partly unstylish performances this kind of recordings tend to suffer from a lack of coherence. That is also the case here. I frankly have no idea what the concept of this disc might be. The pieces are apparently chosen at random, just on the basis of what Elizabeth Watts liked and what was thought to suit her voice. If a singer decides to perform his or her own personal favourites, who cares? Maybe only the ardent admirers of that particular singer. But the music lovers at large are not served with a disc of cantatas and arias which have been recorded many times before. And - what is more serious - the composer and his music are served even less with this approach.

There is a specific problem with recordings of single arias from cantatas. These were written as part of a whole: a cantata mostly composed for a specific Sunday or feast-day. This context is lost in a recording of individual arias. The track-list doesn't even give the Sundays for which the cantatas were written. In his liner notes John Butt only mentions the fact that the cantata Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret (BWV 31), from which 'Letzte Stunde, brich herein' is taken, was performed at Easter. In the case of the other arias he doesn't tell anything about the context.

This aria, which opens the programme, reveals some of the features of the performances. Whereas in the baroque era vibrato is one of the many ornaments a singer or player has at his disposal, Elizabeth Watts uses it consistently. It is not very wide, but still unstylish and obtrusive. The vocal part includes some quite low notes and these don't come off very well. I haven't heard Elizabeth Watts ever before, but it seems her lower register is rather weak. Her performance is made more difficult than needed, because here the pitch is a'=415. This cantata was written in Weimar, where the high choir pitch was used. If this had been observed Ms Watts would have sung the low notes much better. This aria also reveals the general approach, which I would characterise as rather romantic than baroque. The treatment of dynamics bears witness of that. This aria is largely sung piano, but I have no idea what the reasoning for this may be. But real text expression - for instance through the treatment of specific words on the basis of their content - is insufficient. The playing of the English Concert is rather bland and lacks profile. Not only the singing but also the playing should be speech-like, but both aren't. What is especially disappointing in this particular aria is that the focus is on the soprano and the oboe which plays an obbligato part. The strings play a chorale but they are hardly audible and put into the background. But Bach didn't add this chorale for no reason.

In the aria 'Ich wünschte mir den Tod' from the cantata Selig ist der Mann (BWV 57) the strings are flat and bland. And here again there is an exaggerated contrast between forte and piano. Mind you, I am not referring here to the contrast in dynamics between good and bad notes. It is notable that exactly that is lacking here. That is one of the reasons I argued that these performances are not speech-like. The aria 'Wie zittern und wanken' from the cantata Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht (BWV 105) is a further example of a lack of text expression in the emphasis on words - here "zittern" and "wanken". And like in the first aria of the programme the soprano and the oboe are too much in the centre, at the cost of the strings. This aria also bears witness of another issue: the tempo. In this case it is too slow.

Another example of a slowish tempo is the aria 'Höchster, mache deine Güte' from the cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (BWV 51). The swaying siciliano rhythm doesn't come off. And why is the dacapo of the A-section sung piano? The opening aria is taken at a fast speed. That is certainly right, but Ms Watts isn't completely comfortable with it, as her diction suffers. Although her diction and her German pronunciation are pretty good, here she has trouble to pronounce "jauchzet" correctly all the time. The blending of the voice and the trumpet could have been better. There is also some questionable ornamentation. The choral 'Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren' is only so-so, and that is partly due to the orchestra's dull playing.

Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 199) is also not really satisfying. Again the low notes don't blossom, and the whole performance is more directed towards creating an atmosphere than expressing the text. In the aria 'Tief gebückt und voller Reue' there is another contrast between forte and piano for which there is no good reason. It is also too slow. The chorale 'Ich, Dein betrübtes Kind' is marred by too much legato singing.

On balance this disc falls into the category of Bach recordings which should better not have been made.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Elizabeth Watts
The English Concert

CD Reviews