Bach: Cantatas Nos 106 & 182

Amici Voices
hyperion CDA68275

This is a fine showcase for Amici Voices, a group of like-minded young singers, based I suspect around the admirable Helen Charleston, who have enlisted some of their able friends as instrumentalists, including their professors and talent around their home-base in Harpenden to make this recording. They work without a director, like Vox Luminis, and I only felt the lack of direction once – in the change of tempo at the start of the durch Jesum Christum fugue at the end of BWV 106. The overall result is the right kind of music-making: bright and enthusiastic.

Sometimes a shade over-enthusiastic, as in the bass’s Bestelle dein Haus in 106, where in a recording as opposed to a live performance over-dramatising phrases can lead to a coarsening. But Helen Charleston’s In deine Hände is utterly ravishing. And how does Michael Craddock manage to give such a convincing top G when reaching for Paradise and still give a grainy F# on alte Bund at the very bottom? The vocal range is testing in BWV 106 even when done at 415, though I think the arguments (not rehearsed in the liner notes) for doing it at 392 (as with other Mulhausen cantatas where string and wind parts are notated in different keys) are strong on practical as well as musicological grounds.

Two other comments on 106: first, when you are using only an organ bass much of the time, the organ really needs to have more of an an 8’ principal tone. Without it, an 8’ violone is welcome especially when you sing the ‘choruses’ two to a part. With such light scoring as in 106, and the boundaries between chorus and arioso so fluid, I personally prefer single voices: it is easier to match single voices to the very straight sounds of recorders and viols. That is demonstrated clearly by Bethany Partridge’s beautiful soprano line in Ja komm, Herr Jesu.

The eight singers come into their own in the motet Komm, Jesu komm (BWV 229). Here we can hear each individual line clearly, with the sopranos exemplary. Singers of inner parts have to learn to trust that they will be audible without resorting to singing though notes or pushing over bar lines, still less to turning on the vibrato. Just occasionally – often at the ends of phrases when breath is short – that is what happens in all the voice parts and we get a note pushed through the texture, or a weak note accented inappropriately. But when they are all listening to and singing to each other, you can hear the potential for the understated ensemble singing that those who have been trained as ‘soloists’ in the conservatoires find it hard to adjust to, but helps us understand that we need to approach Bach’s vocal lines from behind – singing Bach with a style developed from the motets of Schütz and Schein, and from the Altbachisches Archiv.

BWV 182, Himmelskönig, sei willkommen is another early cantata dating from Palm Sunday in 1714, Bach’s first composition as Konzertmeister in Weimar. Although scored for recorder, a single violin and two violas with a ‘cello sometimes independent of the basso continuo with SATB, the work has a later feel to it. Again there are problems with the pitch at which it works, and the decision to play the recorder part on a transverse flute may have something to do with the difficulty of getting a recorder to play convincingly in E minor in the alto aria. A traverso certainly makes that aria more luscious in feel, though here I found a more ‘modern’ singing style from Helen Charleston less convincing. When Cantata 182 was re-scored for Leipzig, and new parts written for a different context, the scoring was thickened (there are indications of more strings) and an oboe was added to the second violin line, while the top violin doubled the recorder in tutti sections. As it stands, Amici Voices balance the slightly more robust instrumental of the Weimar scoring better, and the sprightly singing and well-controlled lines of a slightly more conventional score with its division into arias, recitatives and choruses (including a motet-style chorale in No 7) give it a more established performance practice style, where singers sound as if they are more at ease.

All in all, this is a good calling card for the group and they should feel encouraged by the way the quality of their performance has been captured, even if there are musicological issues that might have been resolved in the planning with the consequent effect on the performance practice. I was glad to have some details of pitch, instruments and an indication of temperament. The brief liner notes explain the choices behind the programme, but do not attempt to enter the minefield of issues around pitch and instrumentation. We need groups like this to get going – do encourage them and get this CD.

David Stancliffe

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