RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR
JS Bach Cantatas – No 54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde; No 82, Ich habe genug; No 170, Vergnügte Ruh’, beliebte Seelenlust; No 52 – Sinfonia; No 174 – Sinfonia Iestyn Davies counterten Arcangelo / Jonathan Cohen Hyperion F CDA68111 Producer Tim Oldham Engineer David Hinitt
That the leading countertenor of his generation should present a disc of Bach’s alto cantatas is no surprise. It’s become something of a rite of passage since the hovering delicacies of Alfred Deller’s perfectly formed vowels from 1953. Each to his taste, the difference between Iestyn Davies in the two ubiquitous solo cantatas (Nos 54 and 170) and most of the other recordings of this kind is that he searches out meaning on every level, never attempting to beguile you with the ease and allure of his voice alone.
This pays dividends at every turn, not least in the exquisite Widerstehe (No 54). For some, the rolling acres of seamless phrases might appear on the brisk side, but such is Davies’s refined placement, alongside the crystalline accompaniment of Jonathan Cohen’s super-alert Arcangelo, that the listener feels an organic steadfastness without needing the indulgence of obvious props. Cohen and Davies adopt the same principle in the celebrated set pieces of Ich habe genug. This is a work whose transposition from the baritone original can be perilous but here the voice soars into its adopted place with astonishing beauty of concept and execution.
Iestyn Davies’s vocal production is deeply satisfying because it’s always made to fit the expressive environment like a glove, through studied survey and pure instinct in kaleidoscopic tandem. Witness the unsettling imagery in No 170 (‘How those perverted hearts grieve me’), where Davies’s communicative artistry delivers a particularly insidious idea of Satan’s venom and cursing. As I suggested in the original review, the implication of incessant irritation here plays just as critical a part in this graphic scena as extreme rhetorical discomfort. This is an important recording for its questing thoughtfulness, calculated risk and clarity of vision. Most tellingly, perhaps, it never drifts towards muddy sentimentality into which Bach’s alto cantatas can too easily fall. A rare and mesmerising collaboration of a special singer and seasoned instrumentalists, beautifully recorded at St Jude’s, Hampstead. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
Grażyna Bacewicz Complete String Quartets Silesian Quartet Chandos B b CHAN10904 Producer Paweł Potoroczyn Engineer Beata Jankowska-Burzyńska
Sponsored by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of the Polska Music programme
These are exhilarating times for string quartet fans, and following last year’s award for the Heath Quartet’s Tippett, it’s thrilling to be able to salute an outstanding new recording of a major 20thcentury cycle that, if anything, is in even more urgent need of reappraisal. Graz . yna Bacewicz’s quartets aren’t complete strangers to the catalogue, but these performances by the Silesian Quartet set a new standard. You won’t find a more articulate, persuasive and stylishly performed introduction to her world.
And Bacewicz’s seven quartets, written between 1938 and 1965, really do create a whole imaginative universe. Taken individually, they’re fascinating; music of concentrated invention, life-affirming energy and superb technical skill (Bacewicz was a virtuoso violinist herself). Listened to as a cycle, they become a vivid portrait-in-the-round of Bacewicz’s life and times. You’ll hear the influences of Polish folk music, of
Szymanowski and Bartók, and the post-war experiments of her younger contemporaries Lutosπawski and Penderecki.
You’ll also hear her journey from youthful exuberance to the fully achieved neoclassical mastery of the Third Quartet, and then onwards – testing the musical ‘isms’ of the 1950s and 1960s, and assimilating them into a powerfully individual musical language. There’s intense sadness, but also, more surprisingly, an almost Haydnish sense of humour. As Adrian Thompson puts it in his note, ‘Bacewicz is one of the few post-war composers who have succeeded in writing music that is authentically playful’.
The Silesian Quartet play these works like they’ve known them all their lives, in performances that are simultaneously fresh and refined, with a lightly worn command of Bacewicz’s brilliant string sonorities. It’s this lived-in quality that – taken as a whole – gives the Silesians the edge over their rivals on Naxos and make this the year’s most essential chamber recording. Richard Bratby
32 GRAMOPHONE RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR 2017
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