Friday, 8 February 2013

Ich habe genug- Cantata for the Feast of the Purification (February 2)

Like Everest, some masterpieces are just there. You can't meaningfully analyse them without slipping into poetic adoration or stunned silence. Anything I write this week has even less chance than usual of being helpful or coherent. Trawling through Ich habe genug, with all its dark perfection, would be like trying to delineate the night sky on the back of a cornflake packet with a broken pencil . So I'll cheat a little bit. Instead of blathering about what Bach (and his unknown librettist) has done, I'll go through how other performers have made Bach live. Working out what paths mere human beings have taken to reach the summit of the mountain seems less sacrilegious and pointless than wrestling with the mountain itself.

I'm told that this cantata has more recordings than any other. Part of it is the fact that Bach himself made versions for bass, alto and soprano; and it seems somewhat churlish not to allow the tenors to have a go too. Another factor in the equation is the bottom line. A solo cantata is cheaper and quicker to record than one that needs a whole gaggle of singers, who generally are as easily herded as cats on the wrong side of a door. So of the five intrepid soloists I've listened to, one is a baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (I say a baritone- it would be more appropriate to say the baritone of the twentieth century); one a countertenor, Andreas Scholl; one bass-baritone, Thomas Quasthoff;; one mezzo-soprano, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson; and one soprano, Emma Kirkby. (Apologies to tenor-lovers.)

The first path I heard was overwhelmingly that of weariness and struggle. I listened to Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau's 1983 recording with Helmut Rilling. The recorded sound is ever-so-slightly too bright, typical of the early digital era. But as an instrument, Fischer-Dieskau's voice is as rich as it ever was in his 1950s and 60s recordings, although here there's a slightly brighter resonance at the top giving an edge to the sound. And to me the overall emotional message feels almost distraught, the song of a believer who has come the end of a weary life with little left except his faith. The repetitive turns on “den Heiland” - the Saviour - are heavy, determined, almost wrenched out. On “Ich hab' ihn erblickt”, “I have glimpsed him” we hear rock-hard certainty, and a tiny core of joy in the pain. This is what this soul has left at the end of his life; a single, transformative moment of touching the divine that has driven him on, almost onto to his deathbed. This Ich habe genug meansI have had enough experience of this life, no more, let me go!”

Rilling maintains this weight in the string accompaniment; the recitative that follows the first aria has a rising scale that here sounds like an exhausted stump up a flight of stairs to a longed-for bed. And even the sleep that follows in the aria Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen- “Sleep now, you tired eyes”- is troubled. Yes, Fischer-Dieskau's voice is still radiant- how could it now be in this music? But there's a bitter note of anger when he sings “Welt, ich bleibe nicht mehr hier, hab' ich doch kein Teil an dir”- “I'll stay no more with you, World, you have no share in me”. And in this performance, as in life, the magical moment of longed-for rest never lasts for more than a moment. The crucial thought is “hier muss ich das Elend bauen”- “Here must I build up my pain”- the mortal's pain is all the worse for it being self-created, self-trapped in our own web of desires. The only solution to escape from the pain that paradoxically binds the soul to the world is to rejoice in approaching death. Is it fanciful to say that Bach's Lutheranism seems to run close to a Buddhist theology of Nirvana? The dancing aria that concludes the cantata is chilling in its joyful embrace of annihilation, sung with gritted teeth by Fischer-Dieskau. That is the joy that is offered to the lifelong suffering soul; that our little life is rounded with a sleep.

The next way up the mountain was one of Enlightenment elegance. Andreas Scholl's most recent 2010 recording of Ich habe genug with the Kammerorchester Basel comes from a totally different soundworld. The string melodies are delicately phrased, in contrast to Rilling's heavy repetitions. The plucked string accompaniment to the continuo lends a more intimate touch too. As a whole, the orchestra seems far more flexible; the resolution of the chord at the end of the first aria is delayed, to emphasise the gorgeous bareness of the open fifth. Scholl's very first entry has a subtly altered rhythm from that sung by Fischer-Dieskau, shortening and lightening the last note of the upward melody and avoiding the over-emphatic. Countertenors have a shorter shelf life than many other singers, and Scholl's voice is not as uniformly butter-rich as it used to be. Certainly his earlier recording of this piece with Philippe Herreweghe was more luscious in places. But a slight touch of autumnal thinness and the option of a leaner vocal colour is completely appropriate to this piece.

There's always a sense of elegance at the heart of Scholl's and the Basel players' performance. The rising accompaniment in the second movement, which seemed rather like a pensioner's stumble up a loosely carpeted stairway in the Rilling recording, is a smooth effortless ascension here. And Schlummert ein is sung straightforwardly and elegantly, with a sense of a rueful smile in the voice at hab' ich doch kein Teil an dir, followed by a geniune pianissimo lullaby-feel for the last repetition of that gorgeous melody. But I'm going to be churlish in the face of such beauty. In the elegance of the phrasing, this performance almost feels like a Baroque “Allegory of Sleep” without ever getting to the heart of the genuine sense of rest. And there's a surprising gear-change into Scholl's baritone voice in the last movement when he has to sing “Tod” on a bottom G. It all serves to reinforce the sense of slightly unreal but beautiful eighteenth century artifice.

Our third path is sparkling human joy, refreshed with genuine calm rest. Thomas Quasthoff has the darkest, richest voice of any of our guides, accompanied stylishly but unshowily by the Berliner Barock Solisten. Here we see a different emotional register; more joyful than Fischer-Dieskau's downtrodden fist-shaker, more human than Scholl's serene Baroque rhetorician. A real sense of joy infuses the singing after “Ich hab' ihn erblickt” in the first movement. But the real highight is Schlummert ein, where Quasthoff's low pianissimo notes sound like the apotheosis of a snore. You can hear him relaxing into them and just having a good time. His voice just fades into the melody and...Mmmmm... Zzzzzz. No-one sings more quietly or more richly here- the real bass-baritone deep resonances win out, and create a heart-stopping ppp. And immediately afterwards on the words Welt, ich bleibe nicht mehr hier, where Fischer-Dieskau is raging and Scholl detached and transcendent, Quasthoff is triumphant and radiant.

The final movement, with its vigorous dance rhythms, seems to have been revitalised by the previous hypnotic aria and recitative. It's as if the search for the end of life's pain isn't enervating at all; rather, knowing that nothing can ultimately harm us enables the seeker to take part in life more fully. All our worries about risks are nothing when we contemplate the security of salvation after death. In this interpretation, Ich freue mich auf meinem Tod means less “I rejoice in (the prospect of) my death”, but “Confident that my death is nothing to fear, I now rejoice”.

So far, we've only looked at men leading us up the precipice. And yes, it was rare (although not unheard of) for women to sing Bach's liturgical music in services. But we know that Bach's wife, Anna Magdalena Bach, was an accomplished singer and had part of this particular cantata copied into her own notebook. But even if we didn't have any evidence that Bach sanctioned performances by women, that would be no reason for us to spurn performances like our next one.

The fourth path: vibrant intensity and a heroic struggle, centre-stage. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson gives us a diva's performance in the best sense of the word. From the very outset, she seems separate from the orchestral texture. Compared to the eighteenth-century chamber music sound of Scholl and the Basel Kammerorchester, she could be alone on a stage, illuminated a single spotlight. It's ironic, as Hunt Lieberson was once a viola player in the middle of very band that accompanies her on this recording- the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music from Boston, Massachusetts. The slightly more recessed, almost hesitant sound of the orchestra, with tear-drop diminuendi from the bass line, allows the soloist to grab our attention. Yes, her vibrato might be a surprise to those of us used to the austerity of so-called Early Music. But the vibrato is always there for a reason; a spicy condiment, generously but thoughtfully added, rather than an incessant marinade.

Again, Schlummert ein is the most precious jewel. The passion of the earlier movements is still there- it's a wakeful lullaby, unlike Quasthoff's reverie. And the thrillingly intense quiet of Hunt Lieberson's voice tides us over the huge gaps made by the conductor at Bach's pause-points. These are magical pools of absolute silence- deeper in intensity than any simple absence of noise. But this stillness is by no means the end of the story. The last movement has some of the pugnacious quality of Fischer-Dieskau; the soul here will fight on. When the soloist sings “Freue” -joy- you can feel it's a hard-won joy after a struggle equivalent to that of any romantic heroine.

And lastly, pure church simplicity, with Emma Kirkby and the always-wonderful Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Gottfried von der Goltz. It's ridiculous to suggest that Emma Kirkby sings with a “boyish” tone, as if it was somehow un-female to sing lightly, unaffectedly and without vibrato. In fact, plenty of boys have used vibrato as an expressive device in the past- and they still do sometimes. But what Emma Kirkby brings in her recording is a quality of directness and transparency. This recording isn't about her as a performer- this is about the music.

There's an almost instrumental quality to her singing; the words are there, but not hammered out or milked for their emotional heart. They're just there, and to me this feels like the most liturgical of all the performances. That's not to say that it's cold. The “Ach!” in the second movement really stabs through you, and the strings have some exciting echo-effects in the last movement. But I could imagine Kirkby's Schlummert ein being sung as a solo at Evensong in an Oxford college chapel, with the last light of a winter's afternoon filtering through the gothic tracery and a sublime quiet contentment spreading through the congregation.

Of course, one needs to be a supreme performer to achieve this level of self-effacement. And this has to be the heart of the paradoxical message of the piece: that the journey to utter self-less-ness fulfils all your desires and needs; that death is the fulfilment of life, not its extinction; and that when you declare “Ich habe genug” - I have enough, I need no more from life - you are given more sublime gifts that anyone could possibly imagine. Struggle, elegance, joy, passion, simplicity: five paths up the mountain. One inexpressible masterpiece for all time.

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