Iestyn Davies joins forces here with Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo in a programme of three solo cantatas by Bach, which are amongst his most famous despite lacking any role for choir. Ich habe genug is more familiar in its version for bass, but it is performed here in Bach’s arrangement for alto voice from around 1735. All three cantatas here are ideal vehicles for the quiet, meditative focus of Davies’s interpretations as the texts reflect upon the individual soul’s relationship with sin (No 54), resignation (No 82), and attainment of unity with God (No 170). His clean and steady musical lines convey something of the same youthful purity of voice through which these works must first have been encountered, presumably performed by a boy on the cusp of his voice breaking, rather than a more mature male alto.
Davies tends to keep within a narrow emotional framework in these performances, evoking the mood of private devotion, particularly in the lulling opening aria of Vergnüte Ruh’ and the celebrated aria ‘Schlummert ein’ from Ich habe genug. In other instances variety is obtained by a modification of timbre, as in the greater intensity of tone elicited from the relatively high range of the first aria from the latter cantata, as it oscillates around the C an octave above middle C, or the deathly stillness of No 170’s ‘Wie jammern mich’. Even though these cantatas are expressions of introverted Lutheran Pietism, there is room for more dramatic projection, however: the final aria of No 170 could jostle with more unabandoned joy, and the concluding aria of Widerstehe doch der Sünde could have more bite in its theme of banishing sin. The brisk tempo chosen for that cantata’s first aria also underplays both the extraordinary effect of its opening chord of a dominant 7th placed over a tonic pedal and the accumulation of tension as the vocal suspensions mount over the undulating strings. But otherwise the speed adds urgency to this lean, and lithe performance.
The instrumental Sinfonias from two other cantatas filling up the disc are generally warmer and more ebullient in Jonathan Cohen’s performances here. Indeed they will be familiar as arrangements from the first movements of Brandenburg Concertos Nos 1 and 3 respectively, with horns added to the latter, though there is some insecurity of tone and the strings sound a little raw and wiry. But all told, these are consistent and intelligent readings of three great cantatas from one of the most prominent countertenors on the scene today, justifying his recent award of an MBE as much as anything he has done.