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 Recording of the Week  Matthias Goerne sings cantatas for bass by JS Bach

I wasn’t really expecting Bach from Matthias Goerne just now. It’s almost twenty years since the German baritone made his first recording of the cantatas for solo bass with Roger Norrington (described as ‘mature, sophisticated, assured and boundless’ – Gramophone), and there were two questions on everyone’s lips when this new set with the Freiburger Barockorchester arrived in the post: do we really need a second recording of these works from an artist who still has so much repertoire to explore, and would the vocal effects of a decade of hefty operatic assignments in Strauss and Wagner now be all too evident in music where line and intimacy are paramount? After a four-week love-affair with this new set, my personal response is a resounding Yes to the first and a qualified No to the second. If the firm, fresh-voiced readings of that 1999 recording had the charm of a young man’s exhortation, these new recordings (to me at least) communicate something infinitely more urgent and human.

Matthias Goerne
Matthias Goerne

As the booklet-notes point out, Bach’s bass cantatas are all essentially dramatic monologues (‘Ich’ features in the title of two out of his three works in this genre, both of which appear on the new set), and Goerne now infuses them with the same intensely personal fervour which he brings to the complex and conflicted anti-heroes who make up much of his current operatic repertoire and which makes him such a compelling interpreter of Lieder. (His powerful account of Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge has today been announced as a Gramophone Award Winner, and I found myself appreciating the spiritual kinship between these songs and Bach’s own dark nights of the soul with fresh ears when I revisited both recordings yesterday evening).

In Goerne’s hands, Bach’s great reflections on suffering and death come across not as transcendent meditations (if you’re looking for ethereal serenity in this music, get thee to Philippe Jaroussky or Iestyn Davies, whose recent recording of ‘Ich habe genug’ has also just won a Gramophone Award); instead, he gives us a deeply human protagonist whose struggles against the dying of the light are not quite over, and the recitatives in particular bristle with flashes of anger and frustration. This is a singer who’s always at his best in depicting self-lacerating outcasts and outsiders, and though he never overloads Bach’s elegant lines with operatic horse-power I couldn’t help hearing whispers of Amfortas in ‘Ich habe genug’, or The Dutchman in the nautical imagery of ‘Ich will den Kreuzstab’’s long recitative.

But all of this is painted with the finest of brushes, and hearing a voice of this size and colour (now weathered and oaky in contrast to the gleaming mahogany of that earlier recording) deliver such delicacy and tenderness is a deeply affecting experience. Despite the years of singing highly declamatory roles on stage, his command of line remains superb (everything is shaped off with tender loving care, with no bumps or bulges in the phrasing, intrusive vibrato, or audible gear-shifts at either end of the voice), and he can still navigate the coloratura of ‘Endlich, endlich’ with aplomb.

Goerne’s synergy with the Freiburgers is such that when I first listened to the recording I had the impression that he was following in the footsteps of Nathalie Stutzmann and Barbara Hannigan (of whom more later this month…) and directing the small ensemble ‘from the voice’ – the vocal line and strings dovetail into one another quite magically, and the interplay with Katharina Arfken’s obbligato oboe is seamless, particularly in the final aria of ‘Ich will den Kreuzstab’. Arfken also offers a poised account of the BWV1055 Concerto for oboe d’amore, a work which was adapted from the original version for harpsichord but which comes across as a ‘cantata without words’ here thanks to the care with which she sculpts and colours the music’s cantabile lines.

There’s more Goerne to come this autumn, with the next instalment of the Hong Kong Ring Cycle due in November and a disc of Wagner arias in the offing on Harmonia Mundi – but this return to the scene of former triumphs is a disc to treasure.

JS Bach: Cantatas for Bass

Matthias Goerne (baritone), Katharina Arfken (baroque oboe), Gottfried von der Goltz (violin & conductor), Freiburger Barockorchester

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC