The Bach Album
Kathleen Battle, soprano
Itzhak Perlman, violin
Orchestra of St. Luke’s
John Nelson, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon, 1992
It was in his Leipzig years that Johann Sebastian Bach busily engaged in the ambitious purpose to devote himself to church music and to write sacred cantatas with regularity, composing one or more of them a week and pausing only during Lent and Advent, when elaborated music was not required for the services. His catalogue comprises the impressive number of three hundred cantatas, composed between 1723 and the 1740s and divided into five cycles.
The present album collects several wonderful excerpts from Bach’s sacred cantatas of the Leipzig years, with the only exception of Wenn die Frühlingslüfte streiche (from the wedding cantata Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten), which dates from 1718-23.
The Bach Album: the Performance
The performing artists are two exceptional soprano and violinist, Kathleen Battle and Itzhak Perlman, under the conduction of John Nelson. As it can be easily guessed by the presence of two such great artists, the outcome of The Bach Album is one of the finest ever achieved in Bach’s sacred music, something that had an even greater significance at the time of the release because, as the booklet notes explain: «Bach’s cantatas fell into almost complete oblivion for over 100 years after his death, and even today they remain largely neglected both in church (where they properly belong) and in the concert hall (where they are not easy to programme for various reasons); but largely throughout recordings, we are coming more and more to recognize that they contain some of the composer’s finest vocal treasures».
Considering the high standard of this recording, it is difficult to ignore these cantatas any more. Battle shines thanks to her lovely, flawless and angelical voice that suits so well the Baroque repertoire. In The Bach album, she is able to convey the true essence of Bach’s divine inspiration and while listening to her it is difficult not to share the composer’s statement that «the aim and end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul». Her charming expressivity, the wonderful performance of the melismas (moving in particular in Jesus soll mein erstes Wort) and the serene but painstaking attention to the sacred text are the main features that make incomparable her singing. It is worth remembering, although incidentally, that Battle recorded another, similar Baroque album (simply entitled Baroque Duets) with another distinguished colleague, trumpet player Winton Marsalis.
As for Perlman, his principal merit is to focus the listener’s attention to the violin part of Bach’s cantatas. This part is as demanding as the vocal one, but with a less accomplished virtuoso it is more difficult to realize it. This danger is averted here as Perlman always demands the attention of the listener with kindness and firmness at the same time, so that it happens that in arias as Bete aber auch dabei this brings the listener to discover the strict connection between the vocal and violin parts or, in many other passages, to hear how the violin takes the place of the voice in a natural way, seeming that it continues the melody of the latter.
The same happens when Battle begins to sing after a more less long pause filled by the sound of the instrument. This approach creates a magical blend and it would be interesting to know if Bach himself wished it while he was composing his cantatas or if it would have been a nice surprise for him too.
The sincere religiousness of Bach’s music finds in this album two of its best interpreters and the freshness of their performance and the excellent sound of this relatively old recording still allows to enjoy them completely.