Top-notch recordings of Bach’s cantatas haven’t been thin on the ground recently, but even so this latest one, from Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort stands out. It brings together three cantatas that would be affecting at any time, together or individually, but that resonate especially strongly as a trio right now. They trace an emotional trajectory from darkness to light, from despair to hope – and the performances make the experience of that journey especially vivid.
The recording takes its title from Cantata No 82, built around the biblical words of Simeon, who, having seen the infant Jesus, said that he could die in peace. The soloist is the bass-baritone Matthew Brook, a Dunedin stalwart, who brings a compelling honesty to music and words. There are recordings out there where the both the first aria and the consoling lullaby that follow it, Schlummert Ein, are more smoothly sung by more velvety voices. But the grainier nature of Brook’s performance, with its moments of vocal vulnerability mixed up in the beauty of it all, has an immediacy that gets to the work’s essence. Something similar is true of Alexandra Bellamy’s oboe solo in the first aria: it’s beautifully shaped, with phrases left in the air and picked up again before they fall; but just occasionally, when the line goes uncomfortably high and the tuning is fractionally less than perfect for a fleeting second – those moments stop the heart.
The Cantata No 32, Liebster Jesu, Mein Verlangen, finds Brook in dialogue with Joanne Lunn, whose crystal-clear soprano at her first entry is as invigorating as a plunge into cold water. Their eventual duet bounces along in its contentment. The final cantata, No 106 (known as Actus Tragicus), brings a change of texture and perspective, with its ensemble of viols, organ and interweaving recorders. Throughout it all, there’s the same sense of rightness and lightness in the way John Butt directs the music, and of individually characterful musicians coming together with a single purpose. It’s a seriously uplifting recording.
This week’s other pick is from the violinist Jack Liebeck, who tackles head-on the challenges of the six Bach-inspired solo violin sonatas by Eugène Ysaÿe. In a crowded field, Liebeck’s performance is outstanding – spacious and eloquent, played with a warmth and sense of line that betrays none of the music’s technical demands. It’s good also to hear the wistfully lyrical 1893 Poème Élégiaque, with Liebeck joined by the pianist Daniel Grimwood.