Thursday 23 February 2023

Bach: Barnaby Smith, artistic director of VOCES8, & the Illyria Consort in a disc of alto arias

Bach: Ich habe genug, BWV 82, Vergnügte Ruh, Beliebte Seelenlust, BWV170, arias from St Matthew Passion, St John Passion, Mass in B Minor, Easter Oratorio; Barnaby Smith, Illyria Consort; VOCES8

Bach: Ich habe genug, BWV 82, Vergnügte Ruh, Beliebte Seelenlust, BWV170, arias from St Matthew Passion, St John Passion, Mass in B MinorEaster Oratorio; Barnaby Smith, Illyria Consort; VOCES8
Reviewed 22 February 2023

The artistic director of VOCES8 returns to solo arias, with a disc of Bach notable for the purity and beauty of tone and expressivity of line, along with superbly expressive playing from the Illyria Consort

Counter-tenor Barnaby Smith (perhaps best known for being the artistic director of VOCES8) has followed up his debut album of arias by Handel with a disc of music by Bach, on the VOCES8 label. Recorded with the Illyria Consort, leader Bojan Cičić, the disc features the cantatas Ich habe genug, BWV 82 and Vergnügte Ruh, Beliebte Seelenlust, BWV170 alongside arias from the St Matthew Passion, the St John Passion, the Mass in B Minor and the Easter Oratorio.

Smith began his career singing as a treble in The Choir of Westminster Abbey and studied at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis with Andreas Scholl and Ulrich Messthaler. This link to Scholl is perhaps telling, Smith has a similar fluidity of tone and a great beauty of line. For anyone who wants to simply listen, much of this album is spine-tinglingly beautiful, but if you want a projection of the text then that is another matter. Smith's technique is aimed at this liquid beauty, often at the expense of diction. It is not that he is emotionless, but the emotion comes from the melodic beauty and the expressive shape that he imbues it with.

Smith has arranged the disc as something more than simply a waltz through favourite moments from Bach, programme presents a cycle from Candlemas to the cross, and on to the Resurrection. We begin with the cantata Ich habe genug, written for Candlemas, 1727, first performed a bass. It went through a variety of versions, and here we have the alto one from 1735 with oboe soloist (Leo Duarte). It was performed by an unknown alto, who may have been a boy or young teenager, or may have been a falsettist. We don't really know. 

The opening aria of the cantata pairs Smith's smooth, seductive line with Duarte's fabulous oboe playing, supported by an ensemble bringing a lovely lift to the instrumental rhythms. The second aria, also with richly characterful playing from Duarte (on oboe da caccia), is nicely intimate, whilst the joyful final aria is delightfully runny though despite some perky instrumental rhythms, Smith's approach seems slightly sober. 

We follow this with Erbarme dich from the St Matthew Passion, with a superbly stylish violin solo from Cičić and again a nice lift to the rhythms in the ensemble. Here Smith relies very much on the simple expressive beauty of his tone, his floated line, leaving the music to do the work.

The excerpt from the Mass in B minor, a delightful duet 'Et In Unum Dominum Jesum Christum' from the Credo, with mezzo-soprano Katie Jeffries-Harris, might make sense in terms of the programme and certainly brings lots of enjoyment but being as it is a text lifted out of the Credo, it does feel slightly bleeding-chunk-ish.

Next comes Es ist vollbracht! from the St John Passion, featuring Reiko Ichise on viola da gamba. The slower speed seems to make Smith's performance feel somewhat careful at times, and though this is lovely, the beauty seems to come at the expense of intensity.

The cantata Vergnügte Ruh, Beliebte Seelenlust, was written for the sixth Sunday after Trinity in 1726, a period when Bach seemed to have a very fine alto indeed at his disposal and the two following weeks also made use of the same voice. Bach wrote it with an obbligato organ, here Steven Devine.

The first aria shows Smith giving us purity, beauty and expressive, line, supported by fine instrumental playing bringing a nice sway to the music. The second aria is perhaps a little too lovely, given the subject matter of the text (reflecting on the hearts of those perverted by vengeance and hatred), whilst the third is wonderfully perky.

We end with a pair of arias. First the Agnus Dei from the Mass in B minor, and here Smith seems to be able to spin the line out almost endlessly, and then 'Saget, saget mir Geschwinde' from the Easter Oratorio where we get more lovely oboe playing from Duarte and the whole creating a delightfully perky feel.

I have to confess, that though I enjoyed the fluidity of line that Smith produces, I want my Bach to be about more than simple beauty, and would have liked him to use the text to dig deeper. However, for all my strictures about Smith's diction, it is worth bearing in mind that singing solo arias is not his day job. This disc is a fine achievement, and I doubt that you will hear many compilations of Bach arias sung with such beauty of tone and liquid quality of line. Throughout Smith is accompanied and partnered in fine style by the musicians of the Illyria Consort, and their contributions help make this disc all the more satisfying.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) - Cantata Ich habe genug, BWV 82
Johann Sebastian Bach - 'Erbarme dich' (St Matthew Passion)
Johann Sebastian Bach - 'Et In Unum Dominum Jesum Christum' (Mass in B minor)
Johann Sebastian Bach - 'Es ist vollbracht!' (St John Passion)
Johann Sebastian Bach - Cantata Vergnügte Ruh, Beliebte Seelenlust, BWV170 
Johann Sebastian Bach - 'Agnus Dei' (Mass in B minor)
Johann Sebastian Bach - 'Saget, saget mir Geschwinde' (Easter Oratorio)
Barnaby Smith (counter-tenor)
Katie Jeffries-Harris (mezzo-soprano)
Illyria Consort, leader Bojan Cičić
Recorded at the VOCES8 Centre, 18 April, 28-30 August 2022
VOCES8 1CD [72:16]
Released 24 February 2023, Pre-order page.

Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • Listening with different ears: Francesco Cordi directs Bach concertos and Brandenburg Concertos at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry's Court: Christmas 1400, London: Cappella Romana explore music from the Byzantine & Sarum Rites - record review
  • Imaginative & very human: Rodula Gaitanou's new production of Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos at Opera North - opera review
  • A huge amount to admire: Richard Jones' production of Wagner's The Rhinegold debuts at ENO - opera review
  • Music from the African Continent & Diaspora: I chat to Samantha Ege about her latest disc, Homage - interview
  • NYCGB Young Composers 4NMC's annual collaborations with NYCGB results in an anthology disc of eight striking and challenging new works in superb performances by the young singers - record review
  • Seductive and magical moments: Sam Cave's exploration of music for the contemporary guitar enchants and intrigues  - concert review
  • Pianist Clélia Iruzun is the focus of this new disc of music by Nimrod Borenstein featuring his Concerto written for her - record review
  • The Golden Road to Samarkand: the Britten Sinfonia brings together two very different musical explorations of the Middle East - record review
  • From Paderewski to Edmund Finnis: Le piano symphonique's daring double-concert in Lucerne - concert review
  • New music should not be seen as extra-terrestrial, it should not generate fear: I chat to composer Ana Sokolovic, artistic director of the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec - interview
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month