Matthias Goerne: Bach Cantatas for Bass

The highlight of BWV 56 is, for me, the aria ‘Endlich, endlich wird
mein Joch’ (At last, at last, my yoke); speaking of the hope found in
passing into God’s hands in death, the text describes becoming an
“eagle”, finding “strength in the Lord”. Katharina
Arfken’s dancing oboe line imbues the aria with an infectious zeal,
capturing Bach’s message of hope in the afterlife.  The virtuosic
melismas of Bach’s solo bass cantatas require an exceptional agility, and
Goerne’s hefty and sonorous timbre copes well with the demands of the
extensive runs. Goerne and Arfken beautifully accentuate the aria’s sense
of dialogue; listen to the powerful projection of the voice followed by the
delicate response of the oboe three minutes in.  This effectively
communicates the image of the burden of life leaving the soul, the pleasing
lilt enhanced by the light-footed accompaniment of the Freiburger
Barockorchester. The final chorale is equally expressive, communicating the
sense of security as the soul reaches its “safe harbour”, although
I find the rather forward-placed instrumental accompaniment drowns out the
vocal line.

It is one of this cantata’s strengths that Bach sets a text that
employs such poetic, even Romantic, imagery.  It is not a coincidence that
it features an abundance of the pronoun “I”, for Bach’s
message is ‘personal’ and Goerne does well to convey the lyrical
intensity of the music.  Yet the text does not imply lyrical sweetness
alone.  At the moments when the ambience darkens and the texts speaks of
“seas raging and foaming”, I find the resonant, glowing acoustic is
to the detriment of the recording, as Goerne’s rich lower registers could
perfectly evince the darkness of suffering without the need for such a
sepia-toned acoustic.  As a result, the occasional harshness that Goerne
could have used to convey the pain as well as the hope of the speaker is lost,
smudged over by the overly warm acoustic; despite being a cantata about hope in
death, I can’t help but feel something is lost when one emphasises the
hope alone.

Exploring the similar theme of comfort in death, BWV 82 also features the
same exquisite dialogue between oboe and voice that proved a highlight in BWV
56. Here, the ageing Simeon tells of how he recognised Jesus in the Temple, and
yearns to die in peace having seen the Messiah; this is a cantata of touching
devotion and emotional intensity, which the tonal heft of both Goerne and the
oboe communicate well.  Indeed, compared to Joshua Rifkin’s release
on Decca with The Bach Ensemble, the present recording offers a far richer oboe
timbre, whilst the fullness of Goerne’s voice underlines the assuredness
that Simeon feels in knowing he can be with God.  True, compared to
Fischer-Dieskau on Archiv, Goerne is less declamatory in the opening phrases of
the aria ‘Ich habe genug’ (I am content); Goerne creates a powerful
sense of holding back, evoking Simeon’s sense of acceptance.  

As a pupil of Fischer-Dieskau, Goerne has not only adopted his
master’s extraordinarily broad repertory (Goerne has already recorded
Schubert, Eisler and Mahler-Berio), but he also has his ability to project a
powerful narrative.  Yet once again, the warm acoustic blurs the
expressive nuances of Goerne’s phrasing in the famous aria,
‘Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen’ (Go to sleep, you weary
eyes).  Fischer-Dieskau’s Archiv drier acoustic allows for
a far greater clarity of text and phrasing; both recordings, however, adopt a
faster tempo than Eliot Gardiner’s recording with the Monteverdi Choir,
also on Archiv.  Gardiner’s slower tempo may better reflect
Simeon’s “quiet rest”, but one could argue Goerne’s
faster speed better captures his sense of hope.

Although Goerne is central to this disc, the release is not a purely vocal
one, making this an enjoyable listen for its generous programming.  We are
treated to a powerfully expressive Sinfonia. The other instrumental
work proved one of the disc’s greatest pleasures: the Concerto for Oboe
d’Amore, performed with tremendous skill by Katharina Arfken.
 Providing a delightful sense of energy that never falls apart into the
hectic, these are elegant readings that convey Bach’s own sense of
pleasure; one can detect the sense of spontaneity and invention that must
surely have created an exciting atmosphere around the master when he was at
work.  Whether evoking a dance or a lament, this is powerfully emotive and
affective music.

Everywhere I read about Goerne, I find his voice likened to
“pearls”.  His resonant, rich timbre provides a hefty
underpinning to the text, but rarely prevents him from singing with graceful
lyricism.  In the year of the 500th anniversary of the
Reformation, this is an enjoyable release that is a further testament to
Goerne’s increasingly broad repertoire.

Jack Pepper


image_description=Bach: Cantatas for Bass
product_title=Bach: Cantatas for Bass

Cantata BWV21: Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, Sinfonia; Cantata BWV56: Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen; Oboe d’amore Concerto in A major BWV1055R; Cantata BWV82: Ich habe genug
product_by=Matthias Goerne (baritone), Katharina Arfken (baroque oboe), Gottfried von
der Goltz (violin & conductor), Freiburger Barockorchester
product_id=Harmonia Mundi HMM902323 [CD]