J.S. BACH: Cantatas and Arias = Letzte Stunde, brich herein (from Cantata No. 31); Ich wunschte mir den Tod (from Cantata No. 57); Cantata No. 199, Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut; Wie zittern und wanken (from Cantata No. 105); Ich bin vergnugt mit meinem Glucke (from Cantata No. 84); Cantata No. 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen – Elizabeth Watts, soprano/ The English Concert/Harry Bicket – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD 807550, 65:07 ****:
Upcoming British soprano Elizabeth Watts had training as a chorister at Norwich Cathedral early on before continuing on to study archeology at Sheffield University, and then enrolling in the Royal Academy of Music in London. She is slowly establishing herself in the major musical venues all over the world, and has an engaging and naturally affecting voice, capable of great versatility and flexibility.
I do have a few qualms about what I hear on this recording though. The voice is closely miked, so close that is almost sounds as if she was separate from the rest of the performing forces in another room and then mixed in, giving it a slightly superficial quality that I know is not there—one can hear the disjointed sonic ambiance in the mix. Yet the back cover specifies that the recording venue was All Hallows Church in London, so I suspect that the engineers were doing their best to keep the sound from getting away from them. Because of this, I cannot tell if the overly-smothering and caressing way that Watts envelops some of the words is a sonic issue or not—but there is a sense of “hugging” the text in spots that sounds a little too affected for my taste in general, but doesn’t detract from the overall excellence of the performances.
Though this is a showcase for Watts it is still nice to get two complete cantatas. No. 199, “My heart welters in blood” was possibly the only cantata to be performed in Weimar, Cothen, and Leipzig, and speaks of the Lukan contrast between the publican and the Pharisee. No. 51, the famous “Rejoice in God in all Lands” has been recorded many times, one of the most famous pieces in the Bachian repertory, last done memorably to my inclinations by Kathleen Battle on Sony some years back. Watts is brave to try it here, a challenge for the best of the best (along with the pungent trumpet solo) and does a fine job in conveying the joyful strains of supplications and thanksgiving that imbue this work, possibly a hybrid piece culled from several sources, and one that Bach indicated could be played at any time—always the pragmatist.
The other pieces are taken from various cantatas and designed, seemingly, to show off the soprano’s more introspective and emotive capabilities, which they do to good effect. Overall this is a fine album that does credit to the artist and the ensemble, with the concerns listed above.
— Steven Ritter
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