Bach: Dialogkantaten für Sopran und Bass

Johanna Winkel soprano, Thomas E. Bauer bass, Chorus Musicus Köln, Das Neue Orchester, Christoph Spering
Oehms Classics OC 1815
BWV32, 57 & 58

The three cantatas on this CD are all dialogues between the soul (soprano) and Jesus (bass). They do not follow the strict pattern of the larger-scale choral cantatas, and are presented here by a compact instrumental ensemble of strings, with 2 oboes and a taille (but no bassoon), and a chamber organ (of which we are given – like the other instruments – no details) ‘approximately corresponding to the dimensions of the Brustwerk of the organ during Bach’s time at St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig.’ The strength of the organ is a major feature of this recording, and is very welcome. The choir is a clean-limbed, and the organ is clearly audible with developed upperwork in the chorales and an essentially principal tone in the arias. The recits are accompanied by more sustained chords than often.

Welcome too is the robust string playing. There is no doubt that the instruments are equal partners in the numbers of these cantatas, and in some movements – like the opening of cantata 32, for example – the quality of the oboe playing seems to have a good effect on the timbre and quality of the soprano’s singing. Here she abandons her singer’s habit of pushing on cadences and allowing rather too much vibrato to creep into the ends of long phrases. Her fall-back style may well have been agreed as properly emotive for these rather intense cantatas, but I prefer it when she produces a sound more in keeping with her instrumental partners. That she is capable of a clean and musical line is not in doubt – listen to tracks 6 and 7, and 18 – so it must be a conscious decision.

The same is true of Thomas Bauer. He can be robust – as in track 5, when the storming strings threaten to engulf him, like St Stephen seeing beyond the immediate woes that surround him to glimpse the radiant heavens opening – but sometimes he sounds almost cloyingly ingratiating, as when he comforting the soul in tracks 15 and 16: you can hear him singing with a smile, like a certain kind of Radio 3 presenter.

There are interesting liner notes on the cantatas, mostly stemming very properly from their theological content, and showing how Bach – and the performers – understand their role in presenting their meaning. The texts are given in full, but although the notes are given an English version, no translation of the texts is provided.

This is an interesting, if shortish, CD, with some strong points in its favour; and I am glad to have heard it. It is well produced and recorded, and whether you like it will depend substantially on whether you like the singers, and think that they have the right voices for these cantatas. The interpretive skills of the players and director are of a high order.

David Stancliffe