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"Cantata - yet can i hear..."

Bejun Mehta, alto
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Dir: Bernhard Forck

rec: May 2017, Berlin, Nikodemuskirche
Pentatone - PTC 5186 669 (© 2018) (71'51")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte (Lamento); Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Ich habe genug (BWV 82); George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Ich will magnify thee (HWV 250b) (I will magnify thee, aria); Mi palpita il cor (HWV 132c); Siete rose rugiadose (HWV 162) (Siete rose rugiadose, aria); The Choice of Hercules (HWV 69) (Oh cease, enchanting Siren! - Yet can I hear that dulcet lay, rec & aria); Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Pianti, sospiri e dimandar mercede (RV 676)

Christoph Huntgeburth, transverse flute; Xeni Löffler, oboe; Brnhard Forck, Edburg Forck, Uta Peters, Gudrun Engelhardt, Dörte Wetzel, Verena Sommer, Irina Granovskaya, violin; Sabine Fehlandt, Stephan Sieben, viola; Kathrin Sutor, Sibylle Huntgeburth, cello; Andrew Ackerman, double bass; Daniele Caminiti, lute; Clemens Flick, harpsichord, organ

I have to confess that I am not a great lover of discs which seem to focus on the performer rather than a composer and his music. The latter always comes first: if he had not brought anything to paper, performers of our time would have nothing to sing or to play. As Gustav Leonhardt once said: We only perform music by others, because we are not good enough to compose music ourselves.

From that perspective I was rather sceptical when the present disc landed on my desk. I became even more sceptical when I saw the programm Bejun Mehta performed. First of all, almost all the items are very well known and mostly available in more than one recording. Secondly, the programme is a mixture of sacred and secular pieces, which seem to be not connected in any way. I am not a great lover of such a mixed bag.

However, as Susanne Aspden states in her liner-notes, there is a strong similarity between the sacred and the secular, not only in form - the secular cantatas by the likes of Vivaldi and Handel don't differ fundamentally from German sacred cantatas - but also in their emotional character. She compares the famous aria 'Schlummert ein' from Bach's cantata BWV 82 with slumber arias in secular music - a similarity which I have never realised. This observation certainly makes sense, though, just as there is a strong similarity between the lamentos in Italian opera and German sacred lamentos of the 17th century. Johann Christoph Bach's Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte is one of the most impressive specimens of the latter.

The programme which Bejun Mehta recorded with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, reflects his personal choice. Although his recordings of baroque music largely confine themselves to Handel, here he included German sacred pieces, which represent a genre in which I have never heard him. That was another reason for my scepticism: not many non-German speakers do well in German music, and if you have a special sensitivity for this repertoire it is hard to appreciate performances by artists who are full of good intentions, but so often miss the point in their interpretations.

I am happy to say that I was wrong on all accounts. Actually I am pretty impressed by Mehta's performances. I noted several things which I greatly appreciate. One of them is the rhythmic freedom which which he treats the recitatives. The text is his starting point and directs his interpretation. That is certainly not obvious; too often I have to note a far too strict performance of recitatives. I noted with satisfaction Mehta's differentiated performance of the recitatives and arias, most strikingly in Vivaldi's cantata Pianti, sospiri e dimandar mercede. There is some nice characterisation of the protagonist in the opening recitative and a marked contrast between the A and B sections in the first aria. In the second aria the dynamic accents in the vocal part are notable, something that I often miss in other recordings.

Another feature is that Mehta is very careful in his ornamentation. In the secular pieces by Vivaldi and Handel he is certainly not very economical in his addition of ornaments - and rightly so -, but they are all stylistically tenable, and he resists the temptation to rewrite entire lines in the dacapos - another habit of many of his colleagues. He also avoids crossing the boundaries of the tessitura of his part. Although Mehta uses a little more vibrato here and there than I would like, overall he uses it sparingly, and is perfectly able to avoid it altogether. Its application is strongly reduced in the German items. These pieces show that his German pronunciation is quite good - much better than I expected. Johann Christoph Bach's lamento receives a highly emotional interpretation and comes pretty close to the best performances available. Ich habe genug is performed here in the version for mezzo-soprano, one of Bach's own adaptations. There are not that many recordings of this version on the market, and Mehta's interpretation is pretty good.

One other aspect I would like to mention: often the top notes are performed at full power. I have often regretted this habit, in particular in repertoire that was originally intended for castratos. It is known that they generally sang the top notes rather softly. I was pleasantly surprised to hear Mehta doing just that. I also noted that this way the emotion of a piece is not underexposed - on the contrary, the differentiated treatment of dynamics in his singing sets free emotions which otherwise would go by unnoticed.

The air 'Yet can I hear that dulcet lay' from Handel's The Choice of Hercules is one of Mehta's favourite pieces; it gave this disc its title. It is a wonderful piece indeed, and Mehta sings it with so much intensity and such a fine touch that it is a worthy ending of this disc.

I am still not in favour of a mixture of sacred and secular pieces. But I am pretty happy with this disc as it is. Overall the singing is excellent and in many aspects Mehta has pleasantly surprised me. As one would expect the Akademie für Alte Musik is his ideal partner. The magnificent oboist Xenia Löffler deserves to be mentioned explicitly for her obbligato playing in Bach's Ich habe genug.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Bejun Mehta
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

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