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Johann Sebastian Bach: Arias

Angelika Kirchschlager, mezzosoprano a
Stefanie Haegele b, Nicola Favaro c, oboe; Giuliano Carmignola, violin d; Venice Baroque Orchestra
Dir.: Andrea Marcon

rec: Jan 12 - 18, 2002, Venice, La Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista
Sony - SK 89924 (72'47")

Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats, cantata (BWV 42): Wo zwei und drei versammlet sind (BWV 42,3) abc; Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten, cantata (BWV 74): Nichts kann mich erretten (BWV 74,7) ad; Widerstehe doch der Sünde, cantata (BWV 54): Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54,1) ad; Ich habe genung (BWV 82): Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen (BWV 82,3) a; Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde, cantata (BWV 83): Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde (BWV 83,1) ad; Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, cantata (BWV 156): Sinfonia (BWV 156,1) b; Herr, was du willt (BWV 156,4) ab; Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, cantata (BWV 170): Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170,1) a; Mass in b minor (BWV 232): Laudamus te (BWV 232,6) ad; St Matthew Passion (BWV 244): Erbarme dich (BWV 244,39) ad; Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248): Bereite dich, Zion (BWV 248/I,4); Wie soll ich dich empfangen (BWV 248/I,5) a

Any singer who wants to compile a programme of arias by Bach has one problem: which should he or she choose, since there are so many and they are all so great. This CD proves it once again.
Angelika Kirchschlager is an Austrian mezzosoprano. In the baroque period there are no specific arias for that kind of voice. So it will depend on what the tessitura of the singer is whether she is taking soprano or alto arias. On the basis of the character of the voice I would say that she has rightly chosen alto arias. And her luck is that Bach has written so many brilliant arias for alto, perhaps even more than for any other kind of voice. Fortunately she - or whoever compiled the programme - didn't choose only the well-known arias, like 'Erbarme dich' and 'Schlummert ein'. One won't find arias like 'Nichts kann mich erretten' or 'Wo zwei und drei versammlet sind' on aria records or concert programmes that often. So: thumbs up for the way the programme has been put together.
That doesn't imply that we should be happy with a programme like this. I find it very problematic to sing these arias out of their context. It isn't that much of a problem with arias from baroque operas, since they are often almost exchangeable as far as the text is concerned. But in the case of Bach's cantatas it is different. All parts of these works are closely related to each other, and the cantata as a whole to a certain biblical context. Taking arias out of their context reduces them to beautiful pieces in their own right, at cost of the depth of their content. So I am strongly in favour of performing and recording these cantatas in their entirety.

I could live with a compilation like this if the performance would do the music justice. But there aren't many positive things to say about this recording, I'm afraid. To begin with, the performers take liberties with the score without any justification at all. The text has sometimes been modernised: instead of "versammlet" ("Wo zwei und drei versammlet sind", BWV 42) Ms Kirchschlager sings "versammelt", and - even more seriously - in the same aria "Denn was aus Lieb und Not geschieht" instead of "geschicht". As a result the next line doesn't rhyme anymore ("Das bricht des Höchsten Ordnung nicht"). In the Sinfonia from Cantata 156 the strings play pizzicato, but there is no indication in the score for that. The indication to play this way is ony added when the Sinfonia is reused as the slow movement in the Harpsichord concerto BWV 1056. The liner notes say that in the aria 'Erbarme dich' (BWV 244) the strings first should play piano, then pianissimo. I can't find any sign of that in the score, only sempre p at the start.

I have great problems with the way Ms Kirchschlager does sing these arias. Her continuous vibrato is most annoying, she is singing legato all the time, her diction is anything but perfect - there are some horrible examples in 'Erbarme dich' - and so is her articulation. In 'Laudamus te' (BWV 232) she isn't able to sing the trills in the first phrase properly. But even more serious is that there is no text expression at all. 'Widerstehe doch der Sünde' could be about almost anything, the listener won't notice that this very expressive aria is about the temptation of sin in contrast to the cruel reality.

The orchestral playing isn't any better. Here again, there seems to be a total lack of understanding of the text. The playing is characterised by a smooth legato, which has nothing to do with historical performance practice. In particular the instrumental part of 'Erbarme dich' is unacceptable. Giuliano Carmignola uses far too much vibrato and the orchestra creates a sound which reminds me of old-fashioned performances in the romantic symphonic tradition. The last piece is a chorale from the Christmas Oratorio, which is performed here by the soloist and the orchestra. It demonstrates a total lack of understanding of the basics of chorale singing. It sums up the character of this recording quite nicely.
The best items on this CD are the first aria ('Erfreute Zeit', BWV 83) and 'Bereite dich Zion' from the Christmas Oratorio. But on the whole this is a very unsatisfying recording, which shows once more that using period instruments isn't enough to call a performance 'historically informed'. Sony seems to have understood that, since this recording isn't part of its early music series 'Vivarte' - rightly so.

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

Relevant links:

Angelika Kirchschlager
Venice Baroque Orchestra

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