John Quinn
MusicWeb International
March 2022

Alfred Dürr, the great authority on the cantatas of JS Bach, has suggested very plausibly that in 1726 Bach had at his disposal in Leipzig an exceptionally gifted alto soloist. Back in 2017, Iestyn Davies teamed up with Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo in a disc of Bach cantatas which included the wonderful Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV170. Warmly welcoming that CD, I cited Dürr as follows: 'Dürr further points out that the Leipzig alto to whom BWV170 was entrusted on 28 July 1726 soon faced further challenges. Six weeks later Bach introduced another solo alto cantata, Geist und Seele wird verwirret BWV35, which is a much longer piece. Then twelve weeks later Gott soll allein mein Herze haben BWV169, another substantial solo alto cantata, was unveiled.' I’m delighted to find that Davies and Arcangelo have now recorded the latter two cantatas.

Geist und Seele wird verwirret was first performed in September 1726 on the twelfth Sunday after Trinity. It opens with a Sinfonia which, as Richard Wigmore describes it in his notes, 'combines a Vivaldian snap and swagger … with Bachian contrapuntal sinew'. Here, there’s a virtuoso organ part which Bach himself would have played: Tom Foster does a splendid job. There’s an upbeat urgency to this performance. Richard Wigmore suggests that Bach’s original alto soloist was probably aged between fourteen and sixteen. Assuming that’s correct, we can only marvel at the musicianship of one so young, because the first aria, ‘Geist und Seele wird verwirret’ presents formidable technical and intellectual challenges to the singer. Of course, in Iestyn Davies we have an outstanding artist, mature in every sense, to deliver it. The second aria ‘Gott hat alles wohlgemacht’ is scored simply for the singer, organ and continuo. Both music and performance are light and effervescent. This is Bach wearing a smile on his face. Part II of the cantata opens with another Sinfonia. This is flamboyant, fast music which clearly allowed Bach to demonstrate his prowess at the console to the Leipzig congregation. After a short recitative comes the final aria, ‘Ich wünsche nur bei Gott zu leben’. Here, the instrumental performers bring an excellent lift to the minuet rhythms while Davies delivers the vocal line with panache. On the CD this forms a splendid conclusion to the programme.

The disc opens with the cantata which Bach introduced to Leipzig a few weeks later, in October 1726. Gott soll allein mein Herze haben is for the eighteenth Sunday after Trinity. Once more Bach gave prominence to the organ, opening the cantata with a lithe, joyous Sinfonia. It’s a substantial movement; indeed, in this performance it occupies about one third of the whole cantata. Lengthy the movement may be, but the music never outstays its welcome, especially in this splendid performance in which Tom Foster offers sparkling organ playing, supported to the hilt by his colleagues in Arcangelo. In the Arioso e Recitativo that follows, Iestyn Davies sings with bell-like clarity, his singing poised and expressive. He’s every bit as impressive in the aria ‘Gott soll allein mein Herze haben’. He sings it beautifully and I especially liked his tasteful and effective decoration in the da capo. Further decoration is provided throughout the movement through the florid, dancing organ part, which is deftly despatched by Foster. The emotional highlight of the work is surely the aria ‘Stirb in mir’. This is an elegant, comforting Siciliano in which Davies spins a wonderful vocal line. Bach rounds off the cantata with a chorale. For it, Davies is joined by three distinguished colleagues, Carolyn Sampson, John Mark Ainsley, and Neal Davies. What a dream team to assemble for a movement that lasts just over a minute!

In between these two very fine Bach performances we hear pieces by two earlier composers. The Schütz piece, Erbarm dich mein. o Herre Gott was previously unknown to me. Richard Wigmore tells us that it is a setting of a penitential chorale from the sixteenth century, which Schütz prefaces with a short Sinfonia. This instrumental introduction has a suitably dark tone to it. The vocal music that follows is very intense and the timbre of the alto voice offers an excellent contrast to the grainy sound of the strings. The two tonal hues complement each other ideally. Davies sings the music superbly.

Buxtehude’s Klag-Lied was also a discovery for me. I learned from Richard Wigmore that it formed a postlude to a cantata which was sung at the funeral of the composer’s father in 1674. The text consists of seven stanzas which were probably penned by Buxtehude himself. The verses are all set to the same music and I could well imagine that in lesser hands than we have here the piece might seem repetitive. Fortunately, Davies sings the piece superbly and he’s marvellously supported by the dark, subdued accompaniment that Arcangelo provide. In fact, the repetition of the music and the spellbinding performance it receives here creates a hypnotic effect. Richard Wigmore rightly draws attention to the 'doleful eloquence' of Schütz’s music and the same description could justifiably be applied to the performance.

This is a richly rewarding disc. Iestyn Davies offers a flawless exhibition of the art of countertenor singing, bringing superb technique and alert intelligence to all the music. Under the stylish direction of Jonathan Cohen, the members of Arcangelo give distinguished support with the organ paying of Tom Foster a special delight. This is intimate music; engineer David Hinitt and producer Stephen Johns have captured that intimacy in a beautifully judged recording. Hyperion’s documentation is up to the standard we have come to take for granted from this label; Richard Wigmore’s notes are a model of their kind.

This is a most worthy successor to Iestyn Davies’ previous disc of Bach cantatas with Arcangelo.