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How refreshing to encounter a soprano Bach cantatas disc that doesn’t feature the ubiquitous ‘Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen’ (BWV 51) – I’ve no doubt that Carolyn Sampson would dispatch it with aplomb, but alongside the familiar ‘Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten’ (BWV 202) and ‘Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut’ (BWV 199) she has chosen the dialogue cantata ‘Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn’ (BWV 152). All three works are linked by their period of composition – Bach’s time in Weimar (1708–1717), in the employ of the ducal court and chapel – but are very different from one another.

‘Weichet nur’ is a wedding cantata (the identity of the lucky couple has, sadly, not come down to us), with plentiful allusions to the reawakening of nature after the winter; ‘Mein Herze’ is the plea of a repentant sinner, in vivid and emotional language; and ‘Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn’ presents a wandering soul yearning for the virtuous path, finishing with a duet with Christ.

The crystalline beauty of Sampson’s voice makes it the ideal instrument for the wondrous language of ‘Weichet nur’, not least in the opening aria, sumptuously sung in duet with Katharina Arkfen’s solo oboe obbligato. (In fact, the fit between Sampson and the orchestra – as she lives in Freiburg, her local band – is exemplary throughout.)

Baritone Andreas Wolf brings a warm and noble presence to ‘Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn’; he and Sampson lovingly chart the transformation of the concluding duet from fear to redemption, bring the soul’s peregrinations to a satisfying end. ‘Mein Herze’ is no less excellent in its execution; all in all, this is a gem of a disc.

For his Bach recital album, Iestyn Davies has plumped for three of the alto voice’s most treasured cantatas, interspersed with two sinfonias from other cantatas. ‘Widerstehe doch der Sünde’ (BWV 54) also dates from Bach’s Weimar period, and is perhaps most notable for its treatment of the alto soloist as another voice within the instrumental ensemble; with as intelligent a singer as Davies, fulfilling this role but being able to switch into solo mode for the required passages is no great trial.

‘Vergnügte Ruh', beliebte Seelenlust’ (BWV 170) opens with one of Bach’s most warm and comforting arias, contemplating the eternal rest that only Heaven can afford; in this, and also in the more tortured music that follows, Davies sails serenely on through all vocal obstacles.

‘Ich habe genug’ (BWV 82) is perhaps Bach’s most straightforward and stark treatment of death – the text finds some inspiration in the story of Simeon in the temple, who had been told he would live to see the Messiah in person – and its three contrasting arias test almost all facets of a singer’s technical and expressive abilities. It goes without saying that Davies passes with flying colours, bringing a resigned weariness to the gentle relentlessness of the opening, a more impassioned desire for death to the concluding aria, and a sensuous glow to the famous central, lullaby-like ‘Schlummert ein’.

That two of the U.K.’s foremost singers should have released Bach recital discs within a relatively short space of time is a great treat for us all; snap these two up without hesitation.

Adrian Horsewood Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2017 - ©Rhinegold Publishing