Déjà Review: this review was first published in August 2003 and the recording is still available.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Cantatas for Alto
Cantata, ‘Geist und Seele wird verwirret’, BWV 35
Cantata, ‘Ich habe genug’, BWV 82
Cantata, ‘Schlage doch, gewunschte Stunde’, BWV 53 (spurious)
René Jacobs (alto)
Ensemble 415/Chiara Banchini
rec. 1987, Saint-Martin-du Méjan, Arles, France
Harmonia Mundi HMA1951273 [59]

Harmonia Mundi has the excellent idea of re-releasing certain of their most popular recordings as “catalogue” CDs each year. The latest such release is this disc containing three alto cantatas. René Jacobs, an excellent alto, is featured here with Ensemble 415.

The recording contains three cantatas: BWV 35, BWV 53 (which is spurious, and was probably written by G. M. Hoffman), and BWV 82, one of Bach’s best-known cantatas, which is usually sung by a bass or baritone. In the liner notes, it is pointed out that a version of this cantata exists for alto, though it is scored for flute instead of oboe. Jacobs gets the best of both worlds, singing this fine work in his range and keeping the excellent oboe.

This disc is a paradox: with some excellent singing and music, it features very harsh sound, with little warmth or depth. The unflattering acoustics of the church where these works were recorded detracts somewhat from the two orchestral movements in BWV 35. The balance between voice and instruments is not always very good, and at times Jacobs’ voice is drowned out by the music. He sings BWV 35 rather unsurely, his hesitation coming through even over the plodding sound of the instruments in the long aria Geist und Seele. The mixture between voice and instrument is more effective in the second aria, Gott hat alles wohlgemacht, where Jacobs sings accompanied by a very attractive small organ.

Hearing cantata BWV 82 sung by alto is indeed a surprise. Used to hearing basses and baritones, such as the great recording by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the sound of René Jacobs just doesn’t do it for me. The airiness of his voice contrasts too much with the intense grounding this work calls for. In addition, the deep sound of the oboe obbligato in the opening aria overtakes the alto voice, being much deeper and louder, putting the oboe in the forefront and Jacobs in the background. This is a shame – a flute would have been a much better counterpoint to an alto voice here, and would have created a radically different tone overall. Jacobs is more effective in the second aria, Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen, which is played at a slow tempo. His voice works better with the overall sound of the orchestra, but his is again often drowned out by the accompaniment.

The cantata BWV 53 is a strange work. It is clearly not by Bach, because he never wrote a cantata where all the parts are in one movement (it is just a single da capo aria), nor did he even use an obbligato bell. It does not even sound much like Bach’s vocal works. This is relatively uninteresting and Jacobs does not sound very moved as he sings it.

In addition to the above comments, René Jacobs unique vocal colour is certainly not something that all listeners will appreciate. His voice tends to fit with certain types of music, and I find it out of place here with these intense cantatas.

This disc will be of interest, especially for its low price, to those curious to hear Ich habe genug sung by an alto, or by those who like René Jacobs. Aside from these two reasons, there is little on this disc to interest the casual listener. A far better recording of BWV 82 is the landmark version by Fischer-Dieskau.

Kirk McElhearn

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