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Never Enough Bach

A modest stack of new Bach CDs has been piling up on my desk over the last several months—when you’re a Bach-lover it’s hard for this not to happen periodically. There are keyboard sonatas (David Fray), violin sonatas (David Grimal), The Art of Fugue (Pierre-Laurent Aimard), two- and three-part Inventions (Till Fellner), and even a version of the Goldberg Variations played on harp (Catrin Finch). There are lots of cantatas—BWV numbers 6, 12, 21, 41, 60, 68, 99, 117, 172, 182, 197, sung by people like soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, Emma Kirkby, Michael Chance, Barbara Schlick, Andreas Scholl, and Christoph Prégardien.

And there are three recordings of the cantata “Ich habe genug” (BWV 82), whose subject is the wish for death, sung in shades from  mournful and wistful to resigned and frenzied. Over time, this has been one of the most popular cantatas performed or recorded—it probably won’t ever approach the reportedly 200+ covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” but it’s impressive nonetheless. Especially in the context of a business—the record industry—that has shrunk to just a sliver of its former self. Young musicians are continually discovering the thing and falling in love with it, as I did a few decades ago with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s masterful recording with Richter and the Munich Bach Orchestra, who perform the title aria with just the right blend of emotion and restraint. You can listen to him sing it on YouTube in the video below.

One of the more unusual “Ich habe genug”s is sung by Natalie Dessay, the high-flying soprano who was recently Marie in the Met’s remarkable La Fille du Regiment with Juan Diego Florez. To give you an idea of the unusualness of this Bach rendition, Dessay sings the opening aria in E-flat minor—that’s the E-flat minor more than an octave above the baritone version as written (C minor). With her narrowly focused sound, dancy rhythm, and the light, woody baroque instrumentation (Le Concert d’Astrée conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm), it comes off as almost inconsequential, and sorry to say not weighed-down and full-of-weariness enough for my taste (much as I love Dessay).

The not terribly well-known baritone Siegfried Lorenz gives a lovely rendition of the work, recorded back in 1984 with the Neues Bachisches Collegium Musicum Leipzig and recently re-released on a Capriccio CD whose better-known singer is soprano Edita Gruberova (she sings two cantatas, “Mein Herze schwimmt im blut” and “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen,” on the same recording). Lorenz is very much in the devoutly patrician, soulful mold of Fischer-Dieskau, and I am glad to have this recording to come back to from time to time. One of the wonderful things about Bach is how well he translates to different instrumentations and keys, but there is something nice about the original baritone key. The whole thing just settles well there, especially those low notes in the slumbering aria “Schlummert ein.”

And then there’s countertenor David Daniels’s 2008 recording of Bach arias with the English Concert, conducted by Harry Bicket. In modern pitch notation, it’s B minor, meaning it sounds way higher than the C minor baritone version but significantly lower (a major third) than Dessay’s. Daniels takes quite a brisk tempo in the opening “Ich habe genug,” which gives it an especially frantic feeling, and he captures particularly well aria’s desperately pleading character. His sweet, tremulous timbre makes him sound almost like a teenager in extremis—it’s quite a different way to hear this music, which he sings with the same abandonment you’d typically hear in an aria from a lovelorn character in an opera. In the cantata’s second aria, “Schlummert ein,” the word “Elend” (misery) is a near-shriek. It’s exquisite.

As the summer of 2009 approaches, it’s great to be swimming in Bach recordings. With New Yorkers heading out of town and outdoors to hear music, summer is not your most typical season for live Bach concerts—his music sounds best in big echoey churches, which is after all where his sacred works were originally meant to be heard. However, if you’re here in August you will have a chance to hear the splendid Brooklyn-based pianist Simone Dinnerstein (see our previous SundayArts profile) play the Goldberg Variations—something of a signature piece for her—at the Mostly Mozart Festival. If you missed her when she played them live at Le Poisson Rouge in June 2008, this is your chance.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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