Bach: Erbarme dich

Reinoud van Mechelen, A nocte temporis
69:56
Alpha Classics Alpha 252

This CD from A Nocte Temporis directed by Reinoud Van Mechelen is built round a selection of arias from Bach cantatas for tenor, flute and continuo. The CD explores the tenor’s role as the sinner overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of this world yet joyfully anticipating the life above; the flute is both the harbinger of death and the promise of release – as a bird from the snare of the fowler, as the Psalmist puts it. The notes by Gilles Cantagrel describe the arias as trios, which indeed they are, and the empathy between the performers is disclosed in chamber-music making of a high order. Interspersed with the arias and a couple of recitatives are some pieces for flute played on a Melzer copy of a 1750 Palanca flute; the cellist plays a copy of an Antonio Stradivarius by Gérard Sambot from 2000; but of special interest is the use of the André Silbermann organ of 1718, recently restored in 2015 by Quentin Blumenroeder, in Sainte Aurélie Church, Strasbourg, which is tuned at a=460 hz.

The basic organ tone is of open principal ranks rather than the stopped flute of the small, portable box organs we are used to hearing in recent recordings, and to which players often have difficulty in tuning. Here, as in Alpha’s recent recording of early Bach cantatas with Lionel Meunier and Vox Luminis (reviewed below), there is a new clarity and a more robust sonority even in such small-scale works given by using a more substantial instrument, an approach pioneered by Paul McCreesh in the Bach recordings he made with more substantial organs in Saxony and his OVPP St Matthew Passion using the two Marcussen choir organs built together for Roskilde Cathedral in 2000.

The notes give no details of the organ’s disposition – the restoration of 2015 has returned it to the Silbermann 1718 specification – but details can be found at http://decouverte.orgue.free.fr/orgues/staureli.htm. It would have been good to have inserted this reference into the notes since as well as being of interest in its own right, there is one novel piece of registration. In (7), the aria in cantata 107 Wenn auch gleich aus der Höllen  the left hand of the continuo with the cello is marked ‘solo’ and uses the Voix Humaine (and some mutation ranks?), while the right hand plays more principal-based chords (the Positif de Dos Prestant 4’ an octave lower?). This certainly spices up the aria which is in essence a two-part invention depicting how Satan tries his best to overcome the soul with a novel and to me entirely plausible sound where the bass line and the tenor voice are properly equal.

In this kind of programme much will hinge on the vocal quality and interpretive skills of the singer. Reinoud Van Mechelen may not (yet) be a household name like other singers who have made recordings featuring themselves singing Bach, but I rate him highly. His voice is perfectly controlled and very neat, yet he is capable of expressive shading and a degree of emotional intelligence that is rare in singers who get so caught up in the technical challenges of Bach that they sometimes seem too dry and instrumental. But his words are always crystal clear, and the structure of the programme presents a theologically as well as an emotionally crafted structure.

In the new generation of Bach recordings that is emerging, our concerns will not only be with historically informed performance practice in terms of getting the right instruments playing at the right pitches: so much has been achieved here. The focus may now shift to finding the voices who have the emotional sensitivity as well as the vocal ability to match the instrumental sounds they sing with – and that includes the organs. We need to know more about the Saxon and Thuringian instruments and the pitches at which they played and how complex keyboard transpositions worked with a relatively mean-tone temperament.

But this deceptively modest CD is certainly an eye-opener, and I will listen to it frequently as I try to absorb what it is drawing us towards.
David Stancliffe

David Stancliffe