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Bach Cantatas on Record: James Bowman / Robert King

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J.S.Bach, Cantatas BWV 54, 169, 170,
J.Bowman / R.King / King's Consort
helios CDH 55312

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J.S.Bach, Cantatas BWV 35, 169, 170 & Aria BWV 200,
R.Blaze / M.Suzuki / Bach Collegium Japan

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J.S.Bach, Cantatas BWV 35, 169, 170,
B.Fink / P.Müllejans / Freiburger Barockorchester
Harmonia Mundi

The hyperion disc – now re-released on Helios – of Bach cantatas BWV 170 (“Vergnügte Ruh’…), BWV 54 (“Wiederstehe doch der Sünde”), and BWV 169 (“Gott soll allein mein Herze haben”) with Robert King’s “The King’s Consort”, is essentially a James Bowman show. Recordings featuring a counter tenor so prominently still had a touch of novelty to it when this was originally released in 1989, now countertenors are about as – maybe even more – common as altos in Bach, it seems. Three of the four solo alto cantatas Bach wrote are included here, only BWV35, Geist und Seele wird verwirret is missing. (A magnificent recording of that can be found on Sigiswald Kuijken’s new cantata series on Accent, volume 5 – with alto Petra Noskaiová.)

Direct competition for this disc would be Volume 37 of Masaaki Suzuki’s BIS-cycle (with Robin Blaze, lacking BWV 54 but adding BWV 35 and the solo aria BWV 200), the single disc re-release of Ton Koopman’s Bach bringing together the three cantatas on the hyperion disc and adding BWV 200 (Bogna Bartosz and Andreas Scholl share the singing duties), as well as Naxos’s disc by Helmut Müller-Brühl with Marianne Beate Kielland in the same four works that Koopman features. Unfortunately I don’t have the Naxos disc, the Suzuki not yet, am separated from my Leusink (Brilliant) box and my Koopman collection (volumes, 3, 16, and 17 of the original series contain these works). But then, comparison to versions with alto would be misleading given the distinct prominence of Bowman on this recording.

His voice, not the most tender, is beautiful in many ways, but not without a tinge of artifice and with the tonal qualities ‘characteristic’ of counter tenor voices. It is recorded very much forward, a bit too much so for my taste. The King’s Consort becomes a back-up band, albeit one that performs beautifully, particularly enchanting in the opening of Vergnügte Ruh’ and in the Sinfonia of BWV 169 which sounds so familiar because Bach had recycled the material (most likely originating from a now lost oboe concerto) in the Harpsichord Concerto BWV 1053. That said – and very faint moments of piquancy notwithstanding – Bowman’s singing in the aria “Wiederstehe doch der Sünde” is lovingly shaped and felt – and a pleasure to hear. The recorded sound from Wadham College Chapel is pleasantly resonant and clear – with the resonance further accentuating the vocal part. The short concluding chorale of BWV 169 is taken one-voice-per-part, gorgeously sung by Gillian Fisher (who stands out a bit among the four), Bowman, of course, John Mark Ainsley, and Charles Pott. The organ King uses for this recording is a humble, unintrusive modern chamber instrument, the pitch is A=415Hz.

For those already disinclined to countertenors, this is not the disc to convert them. (Bernarda Fink’s forthcoming release with BWV 169 & 170 on Harmonia Mundi would seem an alluring alto-alternative.) For those who wish to hear these cantatas with a counter tenor, the only alternative that includes at least two of the three works combined on this disc is the above-mentioned Robin Blaze. Judging solely from the previous releases in the Suzuki cantata cycle, the King/Bowman version (durations are very similar) should be the slightly more indulgent one.

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