About Cantata BWV 169 'Gott soll allein mein Herze haben' on 'bach-cantatas.com'
About Cantata BWV 170 'Vergnugte Ruh', beliebte Seelenlust' on 'bach-cantatas.com'
About Cantata BWV 35 'Geist und Seele wird verwirret' on 'bach-cantatas.com'
Bernarda Fink had a good 2008, with her Schubert recital disc garnering widespread praise. Her new recording for 2009, of Bach Solo Cantatas, deserves just as many accolades for both her own and the Freiburger Barockorchester's performances.
These cantatas were written in 1726 and marked a new stylistic period for Bach's works in the genre. Between May 1723 and the Christmas of 1725/6, he had composed, rehearsed and performed a new cantata every week. It's hard to imagine how such a workload didn't send him over the edge. Duracel bunny or not, he was surely a man in need of a sabbatical by Christmas 1725. He did indeed give himself a break of around six months, and the works which appeared from June onwards are awash with creative renewal. Gone are the large-scale choral movements, replaced by solo arias. The instrumental accompaniment and the voice are in greater dialogue with each other, the organ shines as a soloist rather than being consigned to simple accompaniment, textures are intricately crafted, and some sections are recycled from secular works. Bach's Leipzig congregation must have had quite a surprise that first June Sunday.
Fink, with her versatile mezzo tone, meets the cantatas' challenges at all levels. The diction in clear, but her performance really stands out for it's control: vocal control, but also emotional. The feelings expressed are often passionate in the extreme, but her dramatically pared-down approach shuns any melodramatic temptations whilst still digging deep into the heart of the text. Meanwhile, Petra Mullejans and the Freiburger Barockorchester provide perfectly-judged accompaniments, and instrumental sections that hum with vitality. They capture the music's often semi-secular, pastoral mood, whilst retaining just the right amount of religious propriety.
Beginning with an ebullient and colorfully scored Sinfonia (giving a prominent role to the organ), Bach's cantata BWV 169 sets the tone for this superb program that highlights three of his finest works in the form for solo voice. It also represents some of mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink's finest work on disc. Bach seems to have had a particular affinity for instruments inhabiting the alto range and timbre, including oboe d'amore and gamba-and of course for the alto voice, for which he wrote one of his greatest arias, "Erbarme dich", from the St. Matthew Passion (whose character and siciliana style is recalled here in the aria "Stirb in mir" from BWV 169). And Bernarda Fink has the ideal voice to translate and transmit to our ears the most heartfelt of Bach's settings, her warm, medium-bodied, agile (and sometimes mesmerizing!) mezzo perfectly capturing the temperament and mixed emotions of a weary soul that wells with hope for the true fulfillment and joy of the next, heavenly life. Needless to say this is difficult music to sing, but Fink's solid, confident musicianship and knowing interpretations show why she remains one of today's premiere soloists (not only in Baroque repertoire but also as a lieder singer).
Among the more enduring qualities of these works are the many ways Bach uses music to comment on and illustrate the meaning of the texts (particularly in the last two arias of BWV 170), the unusually independent scoring for organ (how can you not love those recurring swirling figures in BWV 170's final aria!), and the affecting interaction of voice and instruments in the abovementioned aria "Stirb in mir" (Die within me, O world and all your affections). In this cantata Bach skillfully balances the text's overriding theme-a determination to give one's heart entirely to God, to part from the world and its gladly offered blandishments-while, at the work's end remembering that at the same time "we are also commanded to be true to our neighbor". And so, unlike the other two cantatas, this one ends with a lovely chorale (Luther's Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist) that addresses this point, the chosen verse including the lines "O sweet love, grant us your grace...That we may sincerely love one another and live in peace and unity"-a beautiful sentiment, so simply yet movingly expressed through one of Bach's more engaging harmonizations. The sound, surprisingly not from a church but from a Berlin studio, is absolutely first-rate.