Iestyn Davies and Arcangelo perform JS Bach’s Cantatas

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COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Hyperion
ALBUM TITLE: JS Bach
WORKS: Cantatas BWV 54, 82 & 170; Cantata BWV 52 & 174 – Sinfonia
PERFORMER: Iestyn Davies (countertenor); Arcangelo/Jonathan Cohen
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 68111

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How consoling are Bach’s solo cantatas? Melodies curve over softly dancing bass lines, or are cradled in verdant counterpoint, yet the imagery in Vergnügte Ruh’, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170) is of visceral disgust. The laughing figures and extended trill that spring out from the ruminative chromatic exercise of the cantata’s second aria, ‘Wie jammern mich’, are not those of the poor Christian soul who seeks a godly path but those of ‘perverted hearts’ who engage in ‘Satanic scheming’. Even the cheerful resolve of the final aria, with its zippy little twiddles for obbligato chamber organ, is powered by revulsion for earthly frippery.

There’s a curious tension here, though it is somewhat smoothed over in Iestyn Davies’s poised, sober performance. The Satanic glee of BWV 170 is delivered without histrionics, the tone rich and even. Directed by Jonathan Cohen, Arcangelo’s strings have a beautifully firm sound, with plenty of bow and intelligent details from the lute, while oboist Katharina Spreckelsen plays elegantly in this and in the more introspective anguish of Ich habe genug (BWV 82). The flinty figures of Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54) are less aggressive than those favoured by Lars Ulrik Mortensen but more sharp-edged than those of Ton Koopman, and Arcangelo’s cellos and bass are engaged and expressive throughout. If Davies again seems more focused on beauty and pathos than drama, the Sinfonias from BWV 52 and BWV 174 are pleasingly earthy, with rustic horns.

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Anna Picard