MUSICAL PERFORMANCE AND PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
Thomas Quasthoff Sings Sacred Cantatas by Bach
by Jürgen Otten
It would be easy to describe or appraise the art of bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff by evoking the title of an exquisite lied by the Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn: "On Wings of Song". For a number of decades now, Quasthoff has soared on those wings through the musical world in continual search of new discoveries, of new shores. And just as he did most recently with his highly acclaimed CD A Romantic Songbook (together with the outstanding pianist Justus Zeyen), Quasthoff has once again entered seemingly familiar territory and - through the incomparable quality of his interpretation - made it entirely his own. That territory, in short, is J. S. Bach and the three cantatas for baritone or bass.
Three classics of the Baroque repertoire. And in at least two cases, Thomas Quasthoff had already enjoyed an early involvement with them. Something that many music lovers could hardly know is that, as a schoolboy in his native city of Hildesheim, Quasthoff sang in the choir of St. Michael's, one of Germany's most beautiful churches - not only art historians have sung the praises of its ceiling frescoes painted on wood. He was 13 when the choir's director invited him to join. Today when he looks back on that time, Quasthoff's thoughts are invariably drawn to the works of Bach. He grew up with them - he internalized them, so to speak, as part of a singers' collective well before beginning his international career.
The collective idea forms an essential component of the 2003 Grammy winner's newest recording. Accompanying Quasthoff, along with members of the RIAS Kammerchor (Berlin Radio Chamber Choir, under the direction of Daniel Reuss), are the Berlin Barock Solisten (Berlin Baroque Soloists), led by Rainer Kussmaul. The singer has already given a number of concerts with this ensemble - and discovered that the musical ideas of these Berlin Philharmonic players are very closely related to his own. The results of this collaboration based on friendship are superb readings of the Thomaskantor's three popular sacred cantatas, performances which in their blend of transparency and transcendence represent a milestone in the history of these works.
The secret of this successful collaboration - aside from purely human aspects - can most plainly be found in the manner in which Quasthoff and the Berlin Baroque Soloists recreate Bach's musical language for a new audience. The strings play on modern instruments but use Baroque bows, which serves to make the sound homogeneous and plastic but not too thin. And Quasthoff's bass-baritone voice, with its natural vibrato, blends perfectly into this ensemble. A further and enormous attraction of Quasthoff's Bach interpretation stems from the fact that he approaches the works using his full expressive powers. In other words, here is an artist who does more than illustrate the emotional states in Bach's music - he breathes into them something entirely his own. When, to give just one example, the moment he begins the aria "Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen" from Cantata BWV 82, Ich habe genug (which he numbers among "the most beautiful things in all of Baroque music"), one can positively feel the religious charge contained in this music - its profound drama, its profound meaning, and, not least, its humanity and universality, which can scarcely be described in words.
Thomas Quasthoff has no intention of revolutionizing the Bach performance tradition with this recording. For that the charismatic singer is far too modest. "I would never go so far as to say: What we've done here is to make the Bach interpretation." And yet Quasthoff readily admits that the heightened emotional factor here in comparison with previous recordings is what distinguishes his view of Bach. "My approach to Bach," he says, "is marked by a highly personal experience of this music. And this personal experience is what I'm trying to convey to the listener."
Without risk of overstatement one can say that with the present recording Thomas Quasthoff has again succeeded in realizing that subtle difference between conventional and individualized interpretation. In this connection, moreover, and referring specifically to the Passion-like character of these cantatas, he has no hesitation in articulating an unusually personal point of view: "When someone has enjoyed a life of fulfilment and is plagued in old age by pain and suffering, then he or she may well look forward hopefully to death. I can identify with that. There have been situations in my life in which I had the feeling: Death would be the better alternative to what you're going through now." Who knows, perhaps it is precisely in the unvarnished, even mercilessly blunt honesty of this attitude to life and music that the secret of Quasthoff's singing lies. His recording of these three sacred cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach certainly provides eloquent support for that notion.
[Source: Deutsche Grammophon]
Other Recordings by Quasthoff: