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Reviewed, Not Necessarily Recommended: Bach for Counter Tenor

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, The Voice of Bach,
Daniel Taylor / Theatre of Early Music
RCA 729031

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Sacred Arias for Alto,
David Daniels / English Concert / H. Bicket
Virgin 19037

I had two separate reactions to countertenor Daniel Taylor’s new Bach disc (his first as an exclusive RCA artist), boldly titled “The Voice of Bach”. The initial one was just how much better this is than David Daniels’ similar disc released on Virgin late last year. The consequent one was that, no matter how well sung or how beautiful the voice, Bach does not lend itself to the pick-and-chose approach in the same way that Handel does.

Indeed, this disc seems to be part of a trend where a few years ago a slew of singers—counter tenors notably among them—released Handel aria albums… and now it’s Bach’s turn. Whereas Daniels checks off one aria after another, ordered by source (B-Minor Mass, the Passions, three cantatas), Taylor builds a program around select vocal pieces and Sinfonias to create an all-alto featuring Bach cantata chimera. You can tell that Taylor is not just a countertenor but also the leader of the Theatre of Early Music (and its choir), which performs absolutely splendidly. It’s a much more well rounded, much more varied program and hence more easily listened to than the seemingly random plucking of Bach’s greatest alto-hit à la Daniels.

Whereas the former disc might only be of interest to countertenor fans, Taylor’s disc is just primarily interesting for friends of the high male voice. Incidentally, Taylor’s voice on this disc should be more attractive to countertenor skeptics. Unlike the artifice with which countertenors can be tinged with compared to altos or mezzos, the extraordinary purity of the Canadian’s voice leaves little rational reason to prefer a female interpreter. Or, for that matter, little indication that it is a man singing. If any criticism could be applied at all, it’s that of his voice being so clean as to be devoid of particular character.

With its diversity of vocal, choral, and orchestral pieces, flawless singing, a most pleasant voice, and first-rate instrumental backup, this disc can be recommended "for what it is". But if Bach, not a particular type of voice, is the focus of your listening, I suggest a collection of complete Bach works will prove far more rewarding. I take this from listening to this disc: Were Taylor to record some of the cantatas Bach wrote for alto (or baritone), I’d prefer his recording to those of Bowman (Hyperion) and Blaze (BIS) or a hypothetical such release by David Daniels or any other counter I can think of, except José Lemos.

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