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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 – 1750)
Lass, Seele, kein Leiden from Cantata no. 186 (a,b)
Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt from Cantata no. 4 (a,b)
Schafe können sicher weiden from Cantata no. 208 (a)
Vernügte Ruh’ beliebte Seelenlust from Cantata no. 170 (b)
Wir eilen mit schwachen, doc emigen Schritten from Cantata no. 78 (a,b,)
Christe Eleison from Mass in B Minor (a,b)
Ich folge dir nach from Cantata no. 159 (a,b)
Mein gläubiges Herze from Cantata no. 68 (a)
Erbarme dich from St. Matthew Passion (b)
Flösst, mein Heiland from Christmas Oratorio (a,b)
er kennt die rechten Freudenstunden from Cantata no. 93 (a,b,)
Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten from Cantata no. 202 (a)
Kommt, ihr angefochtnen Sünder from Cantata no. 130 (b)
Wenn des Kreuzes Bitterkeiten from Cantata no. 99 (a,b)
Herr Gott Vater, mein starker Held from Cantata no. 37 (a,b)
Entziehe dich eilends from Cantata no. 124 (a,b)
Sara Macliver (soprano) (a)
Sally-Anne Russell (alto) (b)
Orchestra of the Antipodes/Anthony Walker
Recorded 9-13 October, 10 December 2003, Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC
ABC CLASSICS 476 118-3 [72.51]


The two young singers here have both made something of a name for themselves in Australia and this disc provides a welcome showcase for their talents. Both appeared last year in the Sydney-based Pinchgut Opera’s production of Purcell’s ‘The Fairy Queen’, a production which was received with some acclaim last December. The conductor on this disc, Antony Walker, was also in charge of the performance of ‘The Fairy Queen’

On this disc they give us a recital based around duets and arias taken from Bach’s cantatas, with the addition of items from the Mass in B Minor, the Christmas Oratorio and the Matthew Passion.

Both singers have attractive, evenly-produced voices; Sara Macliver with a bright, smooth soprano and Sally-Anne Russell with a darker, rich-toned alto. Both voices have a warmth and a cleanness which means that they blend beautifully in the duets. Singing together they have a naturalness that makes one voice sound like an extension of the other. Much care has been taken with the details of voice production to create a remarkable unanimity. In terms of a showcase for their talents, this can hardly be bettered.

The disc opens with a shapely account of the duet "Lass, Seele, kein Leiden" from Cantata no. 186, the accompanying orchestra providing a crisp accompaniment with a good sense of the duet’s underlying dance movement. The next duet, "Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt" from Cantata no. 4 is noteworthy for their stunning way with the work’s lovely suspensions.

Macliver spins a wonderfully long line in her ‘Sheep may safely graze’ solo from Cantata 208. In "Vergnüte Ruh’" from Cantata no. 170, Russell gives us some beautifully shaped lines with fine rhythmic support from the accompaniment. But I missed that sense of inwardness that these arias need; the sense of the emotions beneath the music.

In their duet "Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten" from Cantata no. 78, the duo manage to imbue the bubbling passage-work with the fine sense of direction that it needs (after all the opening line is ‘We hasten with faint, but eager steps’). I found the ‘Christe Eleison’ from the Mass in B minor well enough done, but I dislike the way it has been taken from its context. And this movement highlighted another feature of these recordings; at times the voices can be a trifle over spot lit. In this movement the singers render their long lines in a beautifully instrumental manner, but their fellow instrumentalists are banished to the background. The singers should be the first amongst equals, and this does not always happen. But in ‘Ich folge dir nach’ from Cantata no. 159, the two create a hauntingly beautiful effect as Russell’s elaborate alto-line unfolds across Macliver’s singing of the passion chorale.

Macliver renders the opening of "Mein gläubiges Herze" from Cantata no. 68 in a supremely joyful manner, but insufficiently differentiates when the mood of the words turns introspective (‘Hence sorrow, hence grieving, I will simply say to you: My Jesus is near’). Russell bring her lovely dark tones to bear on ‘Erbame dich’ from the St. Matthew Passion and here she does give us a sense of the innigkeit, inwardness that this aria demands. But again, the obbligato violin is a little quiet and we get an insufficient sense of the two duetting.

The echo aria from the Christmas Oratorio somehow lacks magic, perhaps because it is rhythmically a little sluggish; something rare on this disc where the accompaniments are usually crisp and spot-on. The oboe playing on "Weichet nur, betrübe" is stunning and here the instrument and voice are well balanced, giving a fine sense of supple dialogue.

For the last three items on the disc they have created a nicely judged sequence of duets. The haunting "Wenn des Kreuzen Bitterkeiten" from Cantata no. 99 is followed by the Chorale "Herr Gott, Vater, mein starker Held" from Cantata no. 37 with its lively cello accompaniment. The next duet, "Entziehe dich eilends, mein Herze, de Welt" from cantata no. 124 finishes in a lively and joyful fashion.

The diction of the two singers is fairly clear, but I wished that they made more of the words. And here we come to my main gripe. All the items on this disc are refreshingly clean and without any awkward moments; all well and good as far as this goes. But to make more of these Bach arias and duets than a pleasant well produced noise, you need to make much more of the words and the mood. I felt that the words never really meant anything to the singers and that they were content to create a generalised mood.

They are accompanied by the Orchestra of the Antipodes playing on period instruments. This group provide a lively, flexible and discreet accompaniment without mining the music for any degree of depth.

I did wonder whether some of my strictures might have been alleviated if the performers had opted for a slightly different format to the disc. I am never a great fan of these highlights discs, even though it does give us the opportunity to hear these lovely voices in a variety of Bach’s arias. But wouldn’t it have helped all the performers create more dramatic depth if they had performed at least a couple of the cantatas complete. Each aria and duet would then benefit from something more in the way of context.

This is a charming and promising, albeit slightly disappointing disc and I look forward to hearing these performers in more of this repertoire. But I feel that, as they develop, this disc will certainly not be the last word in their performance of Bach.

Robert Hugill


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