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J.S. Bach: Dialogkantaten

CD Button Karthäuser; Volle. Akademie für Alte Music Berlin, RIAS Kammerchor, Alpermann. Texts and translations. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902368

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MANY OF BACH'S sacred texts feature the questioning soul and a consoling Jesus, almost always represented by a soprano and bass. Sophie Karthäuser and Michael Volle join the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin for three cantatas in this dialogue form, all drawn from the composer’s third full year of work in Leipzig. Unlike the edginess of a harpsichord, conductor Raphael Alpermann’s organ continuo emphasizes his gentle aesthetic, and the instrumentalists respond with warm intimacy in beautiful, sophisticated performances.

Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, BWV 32, written in 1726, draws on the Gospel story of the boy Jesus wandering off and frightening his parents until they find him in the Temple among the older teachers and scholars. The soprano voice seeks Jesus in gentle, arcing phrases that imitate the solo oboe’s melodies, and Karthäuser sings them with urgency and fear. At the prospect of joy—“Ach! mein Hort, erfreue mich” (Ah, my refuge, gladden me)—the vocal line breaks into melismas, which Karthäuser fills with quiet ecstasy. In the Bible, Jesus speaks curtly to his frantic parents, who have been searching for three days. (“Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business?”) Here, the bass voice welcomes the searching soul warmly, and the playful ease of Bach’s setting finds a perfect match in Volle’s subtle rhythmic sense. A recitative inserts the text of Psalm 84 (“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Sabaoth”) with limpid phrases filled with joy, while the catchy duet that follows sounds as if it were drawn from an operetta or other secular piece. Leaps and repeated notes overflow with toe-tapping exuberance, soprano and bass imitating then joining each other, while a quiet four-part chorale reverently closes the piece. 

Selig Ist der Mann,BWV 57, is more complicated. Focusing on this saint’s martyrdom, the text avoids any reference to Christmas joy. The bass sings, “Blessed is the man who endureth temptation,” with long sustained notes painting steadfastness and reward. The soprano’s conditional text (“I would long for death, if thou didst not love me”) is expressed in chromatic writing and descending leaps that disorient the listener. In what sounds like a typical opera seria combat aria, Volle tosses off the arpeggios and scales of “Ja, ja, ich kann die Feinde schlagen” (Yes, yes, I can smite the foes) with ease. The soprano now rushes to greet the end of her earthly life in “Ich ende behende mein irdisches Leben,” where the poetry’s internal rhymes match the rhythmic verve of the syncopated and fun violin solo. Karthäuser matches the instrument’s arpeggiated figuration with beguiling phrasing and energy. 

Ich Geh und Suche mit Verlangen, BWV 49, casts Jesus and the Soul as bridegroom and bride, with important solos for organ revealing the composition’s concerto origins. Here the bass is the questioning one, with short phrases of “Sag an” (Tell me) rising urgently, while the solo organ meanders amusingly around the voice. After a recitative, the voices join to “don the nuptial raiment,” and the soprano then takes up this idea in a sprightly aria, singing, “The righteousness of his salvation is my adornment and gown of honor” with playful phrases in imitation of the oboe. Instead of a four-part chorale to conclude, Bach fashioned a concerto-like movement with solo bass melodies garlanding the soprano, who resolutely sings the final verse of the chorale, “How brightly shines the morning-star.” Here, both Volle and Karthäuser cultivate quiet rapture in their singing, sculpting phrases beautifully without any undue sensuality. Throughout the disc, they both prove skilled at repeating phrases of text with renewed intensity and intent.  —Judith Malafronte 

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