Bach: [Cantatas for solo alto]

Iestyn Davies countertenor, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen
64:52
Hyperion CDA68111
BWV52, 54, 82, 170 & 174 (sinfonia)

This CD contains three of the solo Bach cantatas that can be sung by the alto voice, interspersed with a couple of Sinfonias that the composer reworked from the Brandenburg concertos as substitutes for choral opening movements to cantatas 52 and 174. These are beautifully played, and with their horns provide a cheerful counterpart to the main meat of the CD where all three of the cantatas provide a fine showcase for the talents of the countertenor Iestyn Davies. As in previous partnerships between Iestyn Davies and Jonathan Cohen’s Archangelo, this is a very polished CD.

Davies’ voice is a far cry from the hooty altos of cathedral choirs in the mid twentieth century, but neither is it the voice for which Bach wrote: as the liner notes say, ‘‘alto for Bach meant a teenaged boy on the cusp of adolescence’’ and just occasionally you can hear that virile, sinewy sound in some of the iconic Harnoncourt/Leonhardt recordings from the 1970s, though when Leonhardt recorded 170 and 54 he used Paul Esswood, their regular countertenor soloist.

That apart, these are very compelling performances. The opening aria of 170, with its warm strings and oboe d’amore in 12/8, is a beautifully caressing lullaby. Much more difficult to bring off effectively is the central aria, where over a sighing bass of the unison upper strings, the organist’s two hands play a jagged canon on the two manuals of the organ – here a stopped flute in the right hand and a principal in the left. This is a really awkward aria to perform as its basic pulse moves so slowly, and there is a momentary unsteadiness in the first half of measure 20. But the tuning is excellent with a forest of chromatics with double sharps abounding, and must originally have sounded – and been meant to sound – pretty jangly. The last aria too has a virtuoso organ obbligato, and the opening interval (D to G sharp), the renowned diabolus in musica, in the ritornello signals the believer greeting ‘death-in-Christ almost jauntily while registering his disgust with this earthly life’, says the liner notes.

BWV 54 presents different challenges. Probably originally performed in Weimar on the Third Sunday in Lent in 1715, it was recycled for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity perhaps after 1731 when Bach returned to the material to quarry a parody aria for his St Mark Passion. This brief three-movement work is an exercise in resolving the opening agitated dominant 7th chords over the insistent bass in the first movement by the spirited four-voice fugato in the final aria. Though notatated in E flat, when played in Chorton it sounds in F, which makes it not so very low in the alto’s tessitura, but it was good to be able to admire Davies’ bottom notes, after hearing his upper range in 170. It was also a happy idea to acknowledge the early-feeling five-part string ensemble by using single violins to match to single viola parts, but I do wonder about the use of a theorbo as well as a harpsichord and organ.

BWV 82, probably as well-known as any Bach cantata, has at least three performing versions. Originally for bass in the 1727 version, Bach made a soprano version in 1730/31, transposing it up into E and substituting a transverse flute for the oboe; and then revised it again in 1735 for an alto/mezzo voice and reverting to the original oboe, but with a more articulated organ part, before a final version in 1746/7 which was again for a bass. Like Bach’s other Candlemas cantatas, the theme of old Simeon’s letting go of this life dominates the libretto, and the surrender of the central lullaby aria has few rivals in the Bach oeuvre. Even Iestyn Davies shows a few moments of strain in some of the higher passages here, when a mezzo might be more comfortable: was this version made for Anna Magdalena? Extracts of it were copied into her second Clavierbüchlein. After bidding the world goodnight, the last movement with its concerto-like aria (where the harpsichord continuo seems entirely right) makes a fine conclusion to this CD and reminds the listeners to attend not only to the fine singing, but to enjoy the excellent playing – Jonathan Cohen has assembled a very spirited as well as harmonious band of players for his Archangelo.

This is a thoroughly accomplished CD, and would grace any collection; and it’s a must for aspiring countertenors, who will learn masses from the way Davies articulates and phrases individual notes as well as lines.

David Stancliffe