The Bach Cantatas forming the core of this release are staple Baroque fare for bass singers. Michael Volle’s presentation rings the changes by setting them within the context of a wider trajectory, though it is not a straightforward progression from darkness to light, or despair to hope and salvation.
Taking its cue from the oboe-accompanied ‘Ich habe genug’, the programme opens with the similarly scored Sinfonia from Cantata No.21, which is even written in the same key (C-minor), and so creating a suitable atmosphere of foreboding resignation in the face of death. The link to the more joyful Eastertide Cantata No.158 is made with the lively, even skittish, Sinfonia from Cantata No.42 featuring two oboes. However, the Sinfonia of Cantata No.169 (adapted from the first movement of the E-major Keyboard Concerto, BWV1053) makes an oddly upbeat introduction to the more-reflective Cantata No.56. In each Sinfonia, Raphael Alpermann leads the Akademie fur Alte Musik from the organ in engaging performances which each carve out a distinctive character.
Throughout his accounts of the Cantatas, Volle maintains introspective poise and quiet determination, although in the opening aria of ‘Ich habe genug’ he expresses a moving fear and vulnerability, notably different from the sternly dignified authority of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Volle’s approach generally tends to be persuasive in a quiet, direct fashion, evoking Lutheran devotion, rather than mystical fervour; the final number of ‘Ich habe genug’ does not take off with any particular flight of joy to match the words, but the understated seriousness of Volle’s purpose remains compelling.
In that sense his singing is less obviously colourful or rich than Thomas Quasthoff’s in this repertoire, with the latter’s more-generous use of vibrato and modulation of tonal register. Volle comes closest to that in the greater lyricism and passion which he brings to the two arias of Cantata 56. He proves the greater hostage to fortune, though, in the triplet phrases working against the instruments’ rhythm of that first aria as his execution is more uttered than sung seamlessly as Quasthoff manages. That said, the undulating quavers at the beginning are a vivid depiction by Volle of dragging the metaphorical Cross of Life’s burdens to which the text refers.
Volle’s manner provides a good foil to the more contrasting contributions of the other performers, from the plangent contribution enunciated by Robin Johannsen in BWV158, the wiry lustre of the violin solo (presumably taken by the leader, Georg Kallweit) in the same Cantata, like that which gilds the ‘Laudamus te’ of the B-minor Mass, and the almost lilting chorale offered by the dozen members of the RIAS Kammerchoir at the end of BWV56. Even the steady flow of BWV82’s celebrated ‘Schlümmert ein’ is supported with a slight lift to the continuo line, and some discreetly animated decoration by Alpermann on the organ.
This is a recommendable release, but one caveat perhaps preventing wider dissemination is the unhelpful presentation of the liner notes where no texts in any language are given, and the track-listings only identify the sections generically as “Arie”, “Rezitativ” and so on, such that one has to read through the extended notes to find out the titles.