Barnaby Smith countertenor, Illyria Consort
VOCES8 Records VCM152
The countertenor Barnaby Smith has followed a CD of Handel with one of Bach, and this too is excellent. Not only is Barnaby Smith a first-rate musician: he is used to singing with others (in Voces8 most evidently) and he treats his instrumentalists as equal partners in his music-making, but he is an experienced director. This is all too rare among singers, many of whom are used to being soloists and to having lesser mortals as accompanists.
Not so on this finely prepared and executed CD, where attention to every line – instrumental as well as vocal – in this well-chosen programme counts. It begins with the 1735 version of the solo cantata BWV 82, Ich habe genug, where Barnaby Smith sings within himself, varying the tone and approach between the three very different arias and the more dramatic recitatives as old Simeon welcomes the Christ child and prepares to let go of this life. From the first, we are introduced to the kind of music-making we are to expect. In the opening phrase, the admirable oboist Leo Duarte subtly varies the rising figure between the first and the second (and fuller) entry of the rising theme, and this elegant rhythmic flexibility is mirrored by the voice when the singer enters.
This pattern of interchange between voice and instruments that is such a hallmark of Bach’s writing is exhibited in the next group of arias. First, in Erbarme dich from the Matthäus Passion, where the interweaving between Bojan Čičič’s violin and the singer stresses this group’s commitment to performing Bach as what the modern world knows as chamber music, a style stressed by including the duet Et in unum from the B minor with Katie Jeffries-Harris. In Es ist Vollbracht from the Johannes Passion, Reiko Ichise joins the starry cast of players and the virtues of playing one to a part are exhibited in the central section, where the paschal victory of the Lion of Judah is anticipated by the semiquavers of the strings as they underscore the D major trumpet calls of the brilliant vocal part.
In cantata 170, another solo cantata for alto, it is the turn of Steven Devine, the organ player, to shine. Not only does he lead the jaunty concerto-like last movement with a perky obbligato, but he manages the two intertwined lines above the basset bass of upper strings on a single manual. A comparison with the fine recording of this cantata by Damien Guillon with Le Banquet Céleste using a substantial organ at A=415hz, built in 2007 for the Église du Bouclier in Strasbourg, is instructive. Barnaby Smith comes out with a clarity of tone and an enviable flexibility that makes blending with his players sound easy and natural, the result of singer and players listening to each other, players picking up the phrasing dictated by the underlay, and the singer alive to how the instruments articulate each passage.
The other plus of this CD is Barnaby Smith’s liturgical sense. We end this recital with two pieces – the well-known Agnus Dei from the B minor mass and an aria of Mary Magdalen’s from the Easter Oratorio. In the Agnus, we hear the voice in its unadorned purity of line as it is given sinuous counterpoint in dialogue with the upper strings, and in the aria Saget, saget mir Geschwinde we jump into a sprightly movement, where the oboe d’amore takes wing and provides the colour in the ritornelli that seem to be part of a concerto for d’amore until the voice takes centre stage. Here we hear some other delights: a fagotto seems a natural addition to the continuo line (as does a harpsichord), and we might hardly be aware of its presence till in the piano at the start of the middle section it – very properly – dips out. It is this kind of attention to detail in the preparation of this performance that makes it not just a musical delight, but an important exercise in how to perform this music which everyone interested in performance practice should study.
This is a superlative recording, and the clips of various numbers from the CD available on Youtube will increase its value. All readers of EMR should buy it, and learn from it. This is how to do it.