Stephen Greenbank
MusicWeb International
May 2022

With his appointment as Thomaskantor in Leipzig in 1723, Bach was finally able to realize his objective to conduct 'a well-regulated church music to the honour of God'. So, he set to work on an ambitious project of music for the Lutheran liturgy. By 1727, he had completed three annual cycles of church cantatas in addition to the Magnificat and the St John and St Matthew Passions. The booklet writer Richard Wigmore speculates that Bach probably had at his disposal an exceptionally fine boy alto among his choral scholars, and this inspired him to compose three solo cantatas (Nos. 170, 35 and 169) in the summer and autumn of 1726. BWV 35 and BWV 169 contains elaborate organ parts, testimony to the composer’s virtuosic prowess on the instrument. These two cantatas are present on this new release from Hyperion, whilst No. 170 Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust appears on a previous volume, issued in 2016 and enthusiastically reviewed by my colleague John Quinn.

BWV 169, Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (‘God alone shall have my heart’) is for the eighteenth Sunday after Trinity. It kicks off with an impressive sinfonia in which the organ plays a a dominant role. Indeed, Bach himself most probably played the solo organ part at the first performance in Leipzig on 20th October 1726. The beautiful aria Stirb in mir doesn’t drag as in some performances I’ve heard. Here, it moves steadily, a fairly briskly-paced siciliano. Davies lovingly shapes the richly expressive vocal line to Arcangelo’s buoyant accompaniment. The closing chorale, in which Carolyn Sampson (soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Neal Davies (bass-baritone) make a brief appearance, has a glowing warmth and intimacy about it.

It was a month earlier in September 1726, on the twelfth Sunday after Trinity, that Bach’s Cantata Geist und Seele wird verwirret, BWV 35 ('Spirit and soul become confused') had its first performance. As a Bach cantata devotee, and having the Gardiner (Soli Deo Gloria) and Suzuki (Bis) cycles, I have to say that this is my favorite of all the composer’s cantatas. Of the two featured on this disc, this one has an even more elaborate organ part. Take the scintillating sinfonias that introduce Parts 1 and 2, here given supercharged readings of tremendous energy and rhythmic bite by organist Tom Foster. Davies is marvelously expressive in the first aria Geist und Seele wird verwirret. The purity of his voice, augmented by some stylish ornamentation, is ably supported by Arcangelo and some delicate filigree from Foster. The final aria 'Ich wünsche nur bei Gott zu leben' has a delightful lilt which just carries you along.

The music by by Buxtehude and Schütz provide a sombre contrast to the Bach. Schütz’s brief Erbarm dich is a setting of a penitential sixteenth-century chorale melody. The pain and anguish that run its course are realized by the dark scoring. Half a century earlier, Buxtehude’s Klag-Lied or ‘Elegy’ of 1674 was performed at the composer’s father’s funeral, which took place that same year. Doleful and desolate, the dark-hued strings of Arcangelo and Davies’s heartfelt delivery conjure up just the right funereal mood.

These radiant performances are superlative in every way. Iestyn Davies’s stylish and idiomatic renderings of these masterful scores are enhanced by the beauty and technical dexterity of his exceptional voice. His wonderful contributions are complemented by the outstanding partnership of Arcangelo, under the inspirational direction of Jonathan Cohen. It's a match made in heaven. Hyperion’s stunning sonics are the icing on the cake.