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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "The Complete Solo Soprano Cantatas Vol. 1 - The Wedding Cantatas & Ich habe genug"

Gillian Keith, soprano
Armonico Consort
Dir: Christopher Monks

rec: April 19 - 20, 2016, London, St Michael's Church, South Grove
Signum Classics - SIGCD488 (© 2017) (71'23")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ich habe genung (BWV 82a); O holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit (BWV 210); Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (BWV 202)

Eva Caballero, transverse flute; Geoff Coates, oboe; Miles Golding, Emma Lake, violin; Joanne Miller, viola; Gabriel Amherst, cello; Andrew Durban, double bass; William Whitehead, harpsichord, organ

This is the first disc of three devoted to the cantatas for soprano solo by Johann Sebastian Bach. Sopranos are lucky, as Bach gave them nine cantatas to sing. Compare that to the tenor and the bass: the latter has just enough to fill a single disc, whereas the poor tenor has only one cantata.

The soprano solo cantatas are either sacred or secular, although these two categories are not strictly separated. The opening recitative of the wedding cantata O holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit (BWV 210) ends with the phrase: "We are commanded by God to rejoice with the joyful". And the closing aria puts the wedding in the perspective of eternity: "May constant joy fill your home, delight your breast, until you are refreshed at the Feast of the Lamb". The 'Lamb', of course, refers to Jesus Christ. This is the longest of the soprano solo cantatas, and also one of the least-known. The author of the text has remained anonymous, and it is also not known for sure, who the addressee of this cantata was. It is assumed the bridegroom was university educated, and was a great lover of music, as these lines from the aria 'Grosser Gönner, dein Vergnügen' suggest: "Among the treasures of your wisdom nothing can bring you such delight as the art of sweet music". The cantata seems to have been performed on at least two occasions, but only the later version has been preserved. The existence of a beautiful hand-written copy, which contains only the parts of the soprano and the basso continuo, and which apparently was meant as a gift for the couple, has given rise to the assumption they did belong to the circle of Bach's friends.

Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (BWV 202), on the other hand, is one of Bach's most popular cantatas. Its scoring for solo soprano partly explains this; few singers can resist the temptation to perform it in concert and to record it on disc. Nothing is known about the origin of this piece. It was clearly written for a wedding, but for whose wedding? The author of the text has also remained anonymous; it has been suggested that it might have been written by Salomo Franck. The cantata is known through a copy from 1730, but scholars are not unanimous with regard to the date of composition. One option is Bach's time in Cöthen or Weimar, but it may also have been written during his early years in Leipzig. However, stylistically the cantata points in the direction of an early date of composition. The text refers to the end of winter and the beginning of spring which gives some idea about the time of the year it was first performed. The instrumental scoring is modest: oboe, strings and basso continuo.

That is also the scoring of the original version of Ich habe genung (BWV 82). It is from 1727 and is intended for the Feast of the Purification, also known as Candlemas. Jesus is presented in the temple and here Joseph and Mary meet Simeon. God has told him that he won't die before his eyes have seen the Saviour of the world. When he meets Jesus, he recognizes him as the promised one and sings what has become known as Nunc dimittis. The opening aria links up with this: "I have enough, I have taken the Saviour, the hope of the devout, into my eager arms." The following recitative urges the congregation: "Let us go with this man". The idea of having enough of this world is then expressed in the famous 'slumber aria': "Slumber, you tired eyes, close peacefully and blessedly". In the second recitative the wish to leave the world is expressed with even greater insistence. The closing aria is a lively piece which anticipates the moment the protagonist leaves the world and "shall escape from all the misery". This cantata exists in four different versions: originally written for bass, it was later adapted for soprano and then for mezzo-soprano. The fourth version is again for bass, slightly different from the original version. Here we hear the version for soprano, in which the obbligato part for the oboe is replaced by a part for the transverse flute.

This disc does not give me any reason to look forward to the next volumes - on the contrary. Gillian Keith's diction and German pronunciation are quite good, but that's about the only positive things I can say of this recording. Ms Keith's performances are completely destroyed by her incessant and wide vibrato, nearly on every single note. She is something like the female version of Franco Fagioli, and if you are a regular reader of my reviews you will know that's not exactly meant as a compliment. I also don't like her voice, which obviously is a matter of taste. That said, everyone will note that on the upper notes she tends to scream and her voice sounds pretty shrill. That goes in particular for the cantata BWV 210, which is technically the most demanding of the three, and whose solo part goes as high as c'''.

The instrumental contributions are not really better. There is little differentiation between good and bad notes, and too much legato playing in the obbligato parts for the transverse flute and the oboe. Overall, the performances of the ensemble are rather lacklustre and lack profile; the sound of the strings is not very colourful. The balance is also less than ideal; in the aria with basso continuo, 'Phoebus eilt mit schnellen Pferden' (BWV 202), the harpsichord is almost inaudible.

As harsh as it sounds, this is one of the worst Bach discs I have heard in recent years. I really can't find anything in this recording which justifies a recommendation.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Gillian Keith
Armonico Consort

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