Barnaby Smith goes back to Bach

Barnaby Smith’s debut solo disc was titled, simply, Handel.  This, his second, once again a collaboration with the Illyria Consort, announces its focus with similar succinctness: Bach.  It is, in Smith’s words, ‘a cyclical programme through the liturgical year covering some of the composer’s most iconic moments for the alto voice’: beginning with the cantata, Ich habe genug, which celebrates the presentation of Jesus in the temple, moving through the story of Christ’s Passion and concluding with the Resurrection and ‘Kommt, eilet und laufet’ from the Easter Oratorio.  From the B Minor Mass, we have the Agnus Dei and, at the centre of the disc, the Credo – a statement of faith in which Smith is partnered by his VOCES8 colleague, mezzo-soprano Katie Jeffries-Harris.

One might charge Smith with indulging himself with a feast of Bach’s ‘greatest hits’, not all of which were originally conceived for the alto voice (though, as oboist Leo Duarte points out in his eloquent liner book article, Bach often made several different versions of particular arias and cantatas, for various solo voices and different obbligato instruments).  And, Smith does admit to feeling ‘some trepidation’ and struggling to ‘feel worthy of [Bach’s] genius and the searing humanity expressed in his works’.   Given that there are ‘distinctive recordings by notable artists, the countertenor asks, “What else is there to say?”  Well, as I remarked of his Handel disc, there is a ‘genuineness’ about Smith’s music-making that is both engaging and endearing; and, given the quality of the instrumental playing that accompanies his journey through works which Smith describes as the ‘apotheosis of a repertoire I have dreamt to have the opportunity to realise’, and the countertenor’s own directness of expression and assurance of technique, I think that he does have something ‘to say’.

Ich habe genug BWV 82 is one of the most frequently recorded of Bach’s cantatas, most often by bass soloists, though countertenors have presented the version that Bach made for alto – my shelves house Iestyn Davies’ Gramophone Award-winning recording with Jonathan Cohen’s Arcangelo, on Hyperion, and that by Philippe Jaroussky and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra on Erato, both released in 2016.  Smith can match these singers for naturalness of tone and ease of production, though Davies seems to me to convey the most innate perception of the expressive sentiments of Bach’s music.

That said, the devotional context of eighteenth-century Lutheranism is not one that has much in common with modern-day sensibilities.  Ich habe genug presents a rejection of worldly life and yearning for death and the afterlife, so that the soul might be reunited with Jesus.  It was composed for Candlemas – the presentation of Christ in the temple – and first performed on 2 February 1727, for the Feast of Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a liturgical event which is much less prominent in ecclesiastical calendars today.    

The small instrumental forces create an intimate feeling – it’s genuine chamber music – but in the opening aria the balance sometimes doesn’t seem quite right.  The tempo is judicious and Duarte’s plump-toned obliggato flows beguilingly, but when the voice enters the oboe remains very prominent, when it feels as if should retreat a little to make space for the vocal melody.  Both Duarte and Smith play around with the mordant which decorates the initial rising sixth motif, sometimes elongating it languorously, elsewhere introducing an almost dotted rhythm; such gestures seem to go pull against the spiritual introspection.  Duarte’s rather emphatic, swelling, phrase-end appoggiaturas feel mannered to me, and can distract from the vocal line.  The string sound is quite withdrawn, and the steady tread of the bass sometimes recedes so that one is only really aware of the accented first quaver in each group of three, rather than a warm, supportive stream. 

Smith’s tone is sweet at the top, comforting in the middle and evenly produced across registers.  Sometimes I’d like him to sing through the long lines more.  One example comes at 2:08 where, in marking the phrase punctuation in the falling motif – “Ich habe den Heiland, das Hoffen der Frommen, Auf meine begierigen Arme genommen” (I have taken the Saviour, the hope of the devout, Into my longing arms) – Smith weakens the second of the semiquavers in the pairs, so that there’s a slight breathiness and fragmentation, rather than pushing forward to the confident conclusion, “Ich habe genug!” 

The instrumental details of ‘Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen’ are more clearly defined, however, and if a richer string sound might be welcome then there’s a lovely gentleness about this aria as Smith and Duarte’s oboe da caccia tenderly caress the vocal line.  I do wish, though, and again, that the countertenor wouldn’t weaken the second quaver of each pair in the drooping descents: his teacher, Andreas Scholl, gives a masterclass in how to shape a lyrical line in this live recording with l’Accademia Bizantina at the 2013 Festival International de Musique Baroque de Beaune (and, Smith can’t match Scholl’s, or Davies’s, firm fullness in the low, long sustained tones).  He is, however, particularly expressive in the central minor key passage, “Welt, ich bleibe nicht mehr hier” (World, I will remain here no longer).  The recitatives are fluent and unmannered, supported by organist Steven Devine with a light touch.  And, the concluding aria, ‘Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod’ has a delightful buoyancy, as Smith’s countertenor slips relaxedly but purposefully through the runs and leaps, conveying the sure conviction expressed by the text.

Smith presents one other cantata, ‘Vergnugte Rüh, beliebte Seelenlust’ (Pleasant rest, beloved soul’s desire) BVW 170, which celebrates the sixth Sunday after Trinity and is one of eight that Bach composed for obbligato organ. There’s a better balance here between the oboe and voice, with the former complementing the latter, not intruding, greater instrumental warm – though not really a ‘throb’ in the strings repeating rhythms – and a convincing sense of direction, driven from the bass.  Smith seems fully attuned to the sentiments of both text and melody. 

The second aria, ‘Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen’ (How I Lament for Those Whose Hearts Have Gone Wrong), takes the listener into an entirely different world, and a somewhat strange one at that, the obbligato organ accompanied by a spare, unison violin line, with no bass.  Smith skilfully and expressively exploits the writhing vocal line and chromatic twists, which contrast with moments of clarity and lyricism, as the text chastises those lost souls who “insolently deride [God’s] strict commands about punishment” and the organ and strings quietly lament their fate.  Smith is as nimble in the final aria, ‘Mir ekelt mehr zu leben’, as the strings are light-footed.  The tempo is again well-chosen – not too fast, but upbeat enough to express the consolations that, when released from life, the soul may welcome.  Smith, singing with poise and grace, sounds confident that he will find such peace.

The disc includes expected favourites from the Passions and the Mass.  The siciliano lilt of ‘Erbarme dich’ (St Matthew) has a lovely ‘lift’, and Bojan Čičić’s obbligato violin glides beautifully through the solo’s curves and crests (the ornaments are tastefully and persuasivly executed).  Smith’s countertenor seems enriched by deeper hues in this aria, and here is the lovely breadth of line that I sometimes missed in Ich habe genug.  He seems really to get inside the aria and inhabit its sensibilities.  As soon as I’d listened to this track, I went back and played it again – several times. ‘Es ist vollbracht!’ from the St John Passion reverses the balance problem I found with ‘Ich habe genug’, in that Reiko Ichise’s viola da gamba, so sensitively played, laden with sorrow, is too ‘distant’ and doesn’t ‘duet’ on equal terms with the voice, which it surely should?  

From the B Minor Mass (which Smith himself conducted, with the Academy of Ancient Music, on Easter Sunday in 2021, during lockdown miseries) we have ‘Et in unum dominum Jesum Christum’, from the Credo, and the Agnus Dei.  The former is a true delight, as Katie Jeffries-Harris brings a fresh brightness to the vibrant, interweaving vocal duetting which complements the rich warmth of the oboes of Duarte and Robert de Bree.  The melodies sound as if they never want to stop and such fecundity is just right, arising as it does from an exultant expression of faith.  In the ‘Agnus Dei’, Smith shows confident control through the challenging opening phrase, and leans in and out of the chromatic bends expressively.  The disc ends with ‘Saget, saget mir Geschwinde’ from the Easter Oratorio BWV 249, which ripples with the eagerness and elation expressed by the text, “Tell me quickly, where I shall find Jesus, whom my soul loves?”  Smith despatches the busy vocal line with panache – though he wisely doesn’t overdo the rapture, letting the music speak for itself – partnered again by Duarte’s vibrant obbligato. And, it’s good to hear fuller string conversations here too.

It’s a fine conclusion to a stylishly executed disc – one which will offer listeners as much enjoyment as it has evidently given the performers.

Bach by Barnaby Smith will be released on 24th February on the VOCES8 Record label.

Claire Seymour

Barnaby Smith (countertenor), Katie Jeffries-Harris (mezzo-soprano), Leo Duarte (oboe), Steven Devine (organ), Illyria Consort, Bojan Čičić (leader)

J.S. Bach: Ich habe genug BWV 82, ‘Erbarme dich’ (St Matthew Passion BWV 244), ‘Et in unum dominium Jesum Christum’ (B Minor Mass BWV 232), ‘Es ist vollbracht!’ (St John Passion BWV 245), ‘Vergnugte Rüh, beliebte Seelenlust’ BWV 170, Agnus Dei (B Minor Mass BWV 232), ‘Saget, saget mir Geschwinde’ (Easter Oratorio BWV 249.

VCM152 [72:16]