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

David Daniels, alto
The English Concert
Dir: Harry Bicket

rec: Sept 13 - 17, 2007, London, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb
Virgin Classics - 50999 519037 2 5 (© 2008) (66'48")

Ich habe genug, cantata (BWV 82a): Ich habe genug; Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen, arias; Mass in b minor (BWV 232): Agnus Dei; Qui sedes, arias; St John Passion (BWV 245): Es ist vollbracht; Von den Stricken, arias; St Matthew Passion (BWV 244): Du lieber Heiland du - Buß und Reu, rec and aria; Erbarm es Gott! - Können Tränen meiner Wangen, rec and aria; Erbarme dich, aria; Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, cantata (BWV 170): Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, aria; Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd, cantata (BWV 208): Schafe können sicher weiden, aria

The recital disc is a very common phenomenon; every year numerous discs of this kind are released. Most of them contain arias from operas, and that can be beautiful. Many arias in operas by, for instance, Handel are interchangeable and could be sung in any opera. Presenting them out of their context is mostly not much of a problem. This way arias are treated like beautiful showpieces, and that is exactly what many opera arias are.

But Bach's sacred music is different. His Passions and cantatas are a unity, and generally it is not a very good idea to tear arias from these works out of their context. Beautiful showpieces is exactly what they are most certainly not. And especially when an opera singer like David Daniels sings them, their content is likely to come off rather badly.

It has to be said that the result is not as bad as I expected, at least not from Daniels. He certainly tries to give a fair interpretation of the text, and in the aria 'Buß und Reu' (St Matthew Passion) he manages to do so reasonably well. But from a stylistic point of view this is not a very good recording. The continuous wide vibrato of David Daniels is really out of place here (and in baroque opera too, I hasten to add). It interferes with a precise delivery of the text, which includes the differentiation between the important and the less important words and syllables. That differentiation is largely absent: Daniels sings most phrases at the same dynamic level. The articulation is one of the most unsatisfactory aspects of Daniels' interpretation: he apparently aims to sing phrases legato, but that is not in line with the aesthetics of the baroque era. And there are often too little breathing spaces between phrases. Daniels also seems not to be aware that appoggiaturas were taken for granted in baroque music.

Daniels' pronunciation of German is not bad, although not perfect. It fits the style of this recording that the Latin text of the arias from the Mass in b minor is pronounced the Italian way.

What almost annoys me even more than Daniels' singing is the playing of the English Concert. The performances of the instrumental parts are mostly pretty bland, and what I have written about the legato singing by Daniels is reflected by the often legato playing of the English Concert. This is simply wrong and has nothing to do with the baroque principle of 'music as speech'. Interpretation of the text isn't just a matter of singing, but also of playing: the instrumentalists should be aware what an aria is about. The violin solo in 'Erbarme dich' from the St Matthew Passion is an example of what is wrong here: the solo is played purely as a piece of sound, with a brilliant and loud tone, without any distinction or expression of the text of the aria. The orchestral playing doesn't speak and doesn't breathe. The swaying character of the aria 'Schlummert ein' from Cantata 82a isn't realised at all.

All in all this is a disappointing recording. Even if one accepts that arias by Bach are presented out of their context, there are better performances available. David Daniels doesn't convince me as a Bach interpreter. Perhaps one shouldn't expect more from a singer who has made a career mostly in Italian opera, but the English Concert should know better. This is in my view one of its worst recordings ever.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

David Daniels
The English Concert

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