bach alto cantatas naxos

Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2006 and the recording is still available.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Sacred Cantatas for Alto
Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV 170
Widerstehe doch der Sünde, BWV 54
Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, BWV 169  
Bekennen will ich seinen Namen, BWV 200
Schlage doch gewünschte Stunde, BWV 53
Marianne Beate Kielland (alto)
Cologne Bach Choir
Cologne Chamber Orchestra/Helmut Müller-Bruhl
rec. 2004, Deutschland Radio, Sendesaal des Funkhauses Köln, Germany
Naxos 8.557621 [63]

A wonderful recording in all respects! Although a modern instrument band, the Cologne Chamber Orchestra performs expertly in an historically informed manner. Actually, the only feature missing from what we would expect from a period instrument band is the pungency of baroque stringed instruments. Crisp attacks, minimal vibrato, buoyant rhythms, glowing warmth and beauty of form and tone inform these performances at every turn and very much remind me of the interpretations of Masaaki Suzuki in his exceptional on-going cycle of the Bach cantatas.

Of course, the quality of the solo alto is crucial in these sacred works, and I am happy to report that Marianne Beate Kielland passes the test with flying colors. She has a dark-hued, husky, and tonally attractive voice that is highly expressive, determined, and decorated in sensuality. Best of all, Kielland excels in conveying the rhetorical nature of the recitatives. Her voice does not have the tonal purity of alto Yoshikazu Mera for the Suzuki cycle, but her range and depth of expression are much greater than Mera’s. Kielland is a young Norwegian vocalist who has risen quickly in reputation since graduating in the spring of 2000 from the Norwegian State Academy of Music. She now tours Europe regularly with leading orchestras and chamber groups, while her recorded discography also includes Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and his Mass in B minor. Kielland should have a fantastic career ahead, and I am eager to hear more from her.

BWV 170 – Bach composed this cantata for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, 1726. The text, written by Georg Christian Lehms, contrasts the contentment of Heaven with the miserable nature of life on Earth. Although a mature work, this was the first cantata where Bach used the organ as an obbligato instrument having an independent role.

The opening aria is a spiritually uplifting piece in D major replete with gentle rocking from the lower voices that gracefully supports the beautiful legato melody from the first violins and oboe d’amore. The Cologne performance conveys a fine comfort/security and complete emotional satisfaction that are enhanced by Kielland’s confident singing. The mood then becomes nasty in the recitative where Kielland gives us a laundry list of the vile aspects of the human condition. I love her lecturing tone; Kielland’s voice has a personality that knows what it wants, works hard to achieve goals, and expects others to do the same.

The middle aria is in F sharp minor, considered the Baroque key of distress. Here, the 2-manual organ takes two primary melodic lines, greatly enhancing the haunting and disorienting nature of the music. Organist Wiebke Weidanz performs splendidly, and Kielland makes me shiver when she sings “I tremble, yea, and feel a thousand torments”. The following recitative accompagnato restores an environment of optimism, introducing the final aria in D major that affirms the victorious journey to heaven.

From this first work on the disc, it is clear that Müller-Bruhl and company have the measure of Bach’s sound world and emotional content. Also clear is that Kielland is among the best of the current crop of altos in portraying the range and depth of emotion found in Bach’s cantatas. That she does so with delectable tonal properties is a lovely bonus.

BWV 54 – Whereas BWV 170 contrasts heaven and life on earth, BWV 54 pits steadfast faith against the Devil. Having only two arias framing a recitative, it is one of the shortest cantatas Bach composed. However, it is also one of his richest and most compelling works, the great warmth of the first aria complemented by the severity and thrust of the 4-part fugue of the second aria. Kielland continues to impress as she switches with complete conviction from comforting refrains to austere declarations. Also, Müller-Bruhl is an excellent director, imparting a spiritual glow to the first aria and a rock-steady determination to the second.

BWV 169 – Generously scored for three oboes, strings, obbligato organ and bass continuo, this extended cantata has two arias, two recitatives, an arioso, opening sinfonia and concluding chorale. Unlike the previous two cantatas, BWV 169 does not thrive on contrasting themes. Instead, Bach offers us joyous music-making where security and love are the dominant themes. The opening sinfonia, also used in Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in E major, is an excellent example of Bach’s portrayal of the exhilaration of life and faith, and Müller-Bruhl’s buoyant interpretation leaps out of the speakers. In the chorale, the only one on the disc, Bach’s arms are stretched outward to envelop, protect, and enlighten all who enter his sound-world.

BWV 200 – This Aria is all that remains of a lost cantata that was composed about 1740 for the Feast of the Purification. The text is a tribute to the Lord and ends with “the Lord is the light of my life”. For comparison, I listened to the Gardiner version on Archiv Produktion, and Müller-Bruhl easily takes top honors. Although the text well accommodates an exuberant musical approach, Gardiner’s four-minute reading sounds drab and lifeless compared to Müller-Bruhl’s vibrant account where the conversation of the two violins is captivating.

BWV 53 – This programmed aria is just one movement of a larger mourning cantata. The music is gorgeous and quite elegant, and Müller-Bruhl invests it with a comfortable pacing that “fits like a glove”. Those not familiar with this aria will likely be surprised at Bach’s use of bells, a device he rarely employed in his compositions.

In conclusion, this excellent disc is fully the equal of my favorite period instrument recordings by Suzuki, Gardiner, Herreweghe, Koopman, Leonhardt and Rifkin. With sonics that are crisp and appropriately rich, I strongly recommend acquisition to both period instrument and modern orchestra enthusiasts. The sole drawback is the lack of texts, but these can be downloaded from the internet and should not factor strongly in one’s decision to purchase such a splendid set of performances at super-budget price.

Don Satz

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