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Recordings

Bach: Cantatas for Bass
03 Sep 2017

Matthias Goerne: Bach Cantatas for Bass

In this new release for Harmonia Mundi, German baritone Matthias Goerne presents us with two gems of Bach’s cantata repertoire, with the texts of both BWV 56 and 82 exploring one’s sense of hope in death.  Goerne adeptly interprets the paradoxical combination of hope and despair that underpins these works, deploying a graceful lyricism alongside a richer, darker bass register.

Bach: Cantatas for Bass

Cantata BWV21: Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, Sinfonia; Cantata BWV56: Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen; Oboe d’amore Concerto in A major BWV1055R; Cantata BWV82: Ich habe genug

Matthias Goerne (baritone), Katharina Arfken (baroque oboe), Gottfried von

Harmonia Mundi HMM902323 [CD]

€15.99  Click to buy

The highlight of BWV 56 is, for me, the aria ‘Endlich, endlich wird mein Joch’ (At last, at last, my yoke); speaking of the hope found in passing into God’s hands in death, the text describes becoming an “eagle”, finding “strength in the Lord”. Katharina Arfken’s dancing oboe line imbues the aria with an infectious zeal, capturing Bach’s message of hope in the afterlife.  The virtuosic melismas of Bach’s solo bass cantatas require an exceptional agility, and Goerne’s hefty and sonorous timbre copes well with the demands of the extensive runs. Goerne and Arfken beautifully accentuate the aria’s sense of dialogue; listen to the powerful projection of the voice followed by the delicate response of the oboe three minutes in.  This effectively communicates the image of the burden of life leaving the soul, the pleasing lilt enhanced by the light-footed accompaniment of the Freiburger Barockorchester. The final chorale is equally expressive, communicating the sense of security as the soul reaches its “safe harbour”, although I find the rather forward-placed instrumental accompaniment drowns out the vocal line.

It is one of this cantata’s strengths that Bach sets a text that employs such poetic, even Romantic, imagery.  It is not a coincidence that it features an abundance of the pronoun “I”, for Bach’s message is ‘personal’ and Goerne does well to convey the lyrical intensity of the music.  Yet the text does not imply lyrical sweetness alone.  At the moments when the ambience darkens and the texts speaks of “seas raging and foaming”, I find the resonant, glowing acoustic is to the detriment of the recording, as Goerne’s rich lower registers could perfectly evince the darkness of suffering without the need for such a sepia-toned acoustic.  As a result, the occasional harshness that Goerne could have used to convey the pain as well as the hope of the speaker is lost, smudged over by the overly warm acoustic; despite being a cantata about hope in death, I can’t help but feel something is lost when one emphasises the hope alone.

Exploring the similar theme of comfort in death, BWV 82 also features the same exquisite dialogue between oboe and voice that proved a highlight in BWV 56. Here, the ageing Simeon tells of how he recognised Jesus in the Temple, and yearns to die in peace having seen the Messiah; this is a cantata of touching devotion and emotional intensity, which the tonal heft of both Goerne and the oboe communicate well.  Indeed, compared to Joshua Rifkin’s release on Decca with The Bach Ensemble, the present recording offers a far richer oboe timbre, whilst the fullness of Goerne’s voice underlines the assuredness that Simeon feels in knowing he can be with God.  True, compared to Fischer-Dieskau on Archiv, Goerne is less declamatory in the opening phrases of the aria ‘Ich habe genug’ (I am content); Goerne creates a powerful sense of holding back, evoking Simeon’s sense of acceptance.  

As a pupil of Fischer-Dieskau, Goerne has not only adopted his master’s extraordinarily broad repertory (Goerne has already recorded Schubert, Eisler and Mahler-Berio), but he also has his ability to project a powerful narrative.  Yet once again, the warm acoustic blurs the expressive nuances of Goerne’s phrasing in the famous aria, ‘Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen’ (Go to sleep, you weary eyes).  Fischer-Dieskau’s Archiv drier acoustic allows for a far greater clarity of text and phrasing; both recordings, however, adopt a faster tempo than Eliot Gardiner’s recording with the Monteverdi Choir, also on Archiv.  Gardiner’s slower tempo may better reflect Simeon’s “quiet rest”, but one could argue Goerne’s faster speed better captures his sense of hope.

Although Goerne is central to this disc, the release is not a purely vocal one, making this an enjoyable listen for its generous programming.  We are treated to a powerfully expressive Sinfonia. The other instrumental work proved one of the disc’s greatest pleasures: the Concerto for Oboe d’Amore, performed with tremendous skill by Katharina Arfken.  Providing a delightful sense of energy that never falls apart into the hectic, these are elegant readings that convey Bach’s own sense of pleasure; one can detect the sense of spontaneity and invention that must surely have created an exciting atmosphere around the master when he was at work.  Whether evoking a dance or a lament, this is powerfully emotive and affective music.

Everywhere I read about Goerne, I find his voice likened to “pearls”.  His resonant, rich timbre provides a hefty underpinning to the text, but rarely prevents him from singing with graceful lyricism.  In the year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is an enjoyable release that is a further testament to Goerne’s increasingly broad repertoire.

Jack Pepper

      

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