Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunday Classics: Fischer-Dieskau and Richter just perform "Schlummert ein" way better than anybody else I've heard


So here's how the cantata begins

BACH: Cantata No. 82, "Ich habe genug":
i. Aria, "Ich habe genug"

-- from the Bach Cantatas Website

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Manfred Clement, oboe; Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, cond. DG Archiv Produktion, recorded July 1968

Hermann Prey, baritone; Willy Garlach, oboe; Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Thomas, cond. Eterna-EMI, recorded Dec. 14-19, 1959

Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano; Michael Dobson, oboe; Bath Festival Orchestra, Yehudi Menuhin, cond. EMI, recorded July 1966

by Ken

So a couple of weeks ago I told the story of how suddenly the audio cassette became a medium for music for me: when I listened to a DGArchiv cassette of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's second (1968) recording of the popular coupling of Bach's two solo-bass cantatas, and we heard all three of his recordings of the great central aria, "Schlummert etin," of Cantata No. 82, "Ich habe genug." I warned that we might be returning to the scene of the crime, in the form of taking a shot at hearing the margin of superiority of this not-really-wildly-heralded recording in collaboration with the once-admired (but not so much anymore) baroque specialist Karl Richter, over any other I've encountered.

So here we are.

But first, as noted above, I thought we might hear how Cantata No. 82 begins, with the aria "Ich habe genug." (This is not exactly a coincidence. We know the Bach cantatas by the title, usually the first line, of their opening number.)


First off, in 1968 Fischer-Dieskau sang the aria better than anybody else I've heard, way better -- in terms of sheer beauty, command of line, and full expressive projection. Second off, ditto all the above for Karl Richter's accompaniment Just listen.


And there's still no question in my mind that among all our performances, it's the 1968 Fischer-Dieskau with Karl Richter and then, trailing at a distance, the best of the performances.

BACH: Cantata No. 82, "Ich habe genug":
iii. Aria, "Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen"

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Karl Ristenpart Chamber Orchestra, Karl Ristenpart, cond. DG Archiv Produktion, recorded in Berlin, June 20-22, 1951

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, cond. DG Archiv Produktion, recorded July 1968

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, Helmuth Rilling cond. Hänssler Classic, recorded July 1983


Not bad. I kind of enjoy the old "Leipzig school" of Bach performance, and Hermann Prey is a good fit for it. Souzay does a credible too, within the limits of the kind of sour sound his baritone settled into fairly early. (I relistened online to his 1959 recording, and it's really not enough earlier to make the hoped-for difference. In the early '60s this was a very different, genuinely beautiful voice.)

Hermann Prey, baritone; Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Thomas, cond. Eterna-EMI, recorded Dec. 14-19, 1959

Gérard Souzay, baritone; Deutsche Bachsolisten, Helmut Winschermann, cond. Philips, recorded in Berlin, Dec. 10-16, 1968


I'm a little puzzled by Olaf Bär's recording. I often found him a dependably nice, unfussy, mellifluous singer, and here he sounds kind of jumbled. Then, Matthias Goerne is done no favor by Roger Norrington's prissy conducting, which tends to clamp down on any real expression of the aria's emotional content.

Olaf Bär, baritone; Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Peter Schreier, cond. EMI, recorded May 1991

Matthias Goerne, baritone; Camerata Academica Salzburg, Roger Norrington, cond. Decca, recorded June 16-18, 1999


I hear the accordion-like wheeze of the orchestral opening in the Hungaroton Antiqua (boy, does it sound Antiqua!), and I cringe, even though I found bass Lészló Polgár a highly likable singer, but the emotional range here is awfully compressed. (It might sound like an interesting idea to hear an actual bass in this music, but the performance is taken down a half-step or so in the name of authenticity, so that's really no big deal.)

The appoggiatura-mad Harnoncourt performance, though a little less wheezy, also has a case of the authenticity blues, again undercutting and shrinking a likable soloist, the Swiss baritone Philippe Huttenlocher. However, from a textual standpoint Harnoncourt uses the oboe da caccia part Bach added for later performances of the cantata, and it's interesting to hear, though the instrument produces such a distinctive sound that it kind of overwhelms these underwhelming proceedings.

Lészló Polgár, bass; Capella Savaria, Pál Németh, cond. Hungaroton Antiqua, recorded c1985

Philippe Huttenlocher, baritone; Jürg Schaeftlein, oboe da caccia; Vienna Concentus Musicus, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, cond. Telefunken, recorded March 1977


I hadn't heard Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's recording, and had high hopes for it. She was a special artist, and she toured a staged version of the cantata in a production by Peter Sellars -- and it was in Sellars's production of Don Giovanni that she first made a real impact on me, as a punk Elivra, but the recording of the cantata strikes me as almost entirely undramatic -- it just pokes along.

Janet Baker's recording is certainly okay. Actually, I quite like her recording of the opening aria, which we heard at the top of this post. (My apologies, by the way, for the mono sound here. I dubbed it from my LP, which must have been bought from a cutout mono bargain bin. The version of the opening aria we heard up top is the stereo original.)

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo-soprano); Orchestra of Emmanuel Music, Craig Smith, cond. Nonesuch, recorded May 13-16, 2002

Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano; Bath Festival Orchestra, Yehudi Menuhin, cond. EMI, recorded July 1966


To my ears, it still isn't close. As a matter of fact, when I was making the dub from my LP copy of the opening aria, and it ran on into the recitative that links it and "Schlummert ein," I was sorry you weren't going to hear that as well, because in its simplicity and power of expression it's even more better than the competition in the arias.

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