Could any composer write a more joyful overture (sinfonia)–whenever, as often as he wanted? Just listen to the first few seconds of the “sinfonia” movements of BWV 35 and BWV 169 and the uplift and joyfulness are immediately present; in those moments you can’t help but appreciate Bach’s ability to create such a wonderful emotional punch, so effectively and in so many different ways. Yes, Bach did “despair” and “grief” quite well too–probably like no one else–but here are examples of the composer at his most exuberant, and demanding of his performers.
And speaking of demands on his performers, the arias he has set for his soloist are not for the weak of spirit, nor those wanting of technique. One of four cantatas Bach wrote for alto solo, BWV 169 (from 1726), features parts for organ obbligato, as does the other cantata presented here, BWV 35. (And by the way, those organ parts are quite formidable in their own right–likely taken on by Bach himself in the performances.) From the first notes of the opening solo–an arioso/recitative with only continuo accompaniment–Iestyn Davies announces his clear, golden, mellifluous countertenor, and with his ingratiating tone and range of emotional expression convinces us that this is the ideal voice and character for this music.
His virtuosity–control, consistency across registers, ease in both the fastest, most challenging roulades and melismas and the most delicate points of articulation–is not “out there” but rather keeps itself fully inside the musical line and text. Although there are, for some reason, relatively few available recordings of these two cantatas (Andreas Scholl offers a fine rendition of BWV 35), it doesn’t matter when we have such excellently sung and played versions as here.
In contrast to–and placed in between–the exuberance of the two cantatas, we have the somber, and even more somber works by Heinrich Schütz and Dietrich Buxtehude. The former is a relatively short setting of “a penitential 16th-century chorale melody”, its richly sonorous instrumental introduction followed by a grim appeal by the soloist for God’s mercy amid sin and wickedness. Buxtehude’s Klag-Lied (elegy) is a funeral piece, seven verses of sung text accompanied by viols and continuo. While melodically beautiful, and in Davies’ interpretation quite affecting, the fact that each verse is fairly long and the music for each verse is the same (and the mood relentlessly mournful), the sheer repetitiveness caused me to tune out somewhere in the middle. This isn’t really “concert” or “recital” music and it just seems like filler here, whose space could have been taken by, well, another cantata perhaps?
Anyway, for the two cantatas, you won’t find better performances. Davies is among the world’s best countertenors–a reliable, engaging, and impressive singer no matter what he performs, and he certainly is an exceptional interpreter of this repertoire.