Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In review--Bach Be Dazzled

Elizabeth Watts
The English Concert w/Harry Bicket
J.S. Bach Cantatas and Arias
Harmonia Mundi

I find no shortage of riveting sopranos in the classical realm. And among them, Soprano Elizabeth Watts who debuts on Harmonia Mundi with a collection of J.S. Bach’s cantatas and arias brings extraordinary sensitivity to this religious text while also dazzling us with her vocal finesse. She closes the recording with a showstopper, Cantata 51 which runs from track 13 to 17 and if the introduction to that cantata doesn’t blow the minds of its listeners, nothing will. Bach is known for the challenging aspects of his compositions—only first rate performers need apply. However, Bach’s repertoire isn’t just daunting for musicians, but also for the average music listener.

Joining with The English Concert, Watts delivers the mostly somber works ranging from the opening Aria from Cantata 31, to Cantata 199 (other arias included) and ending with Cantata 51, as mentioned earlier. Mark Bennett’s trumpet on Cantata 51 also dazzles with clear, bell-like tones performing musical acrobatics which pair off well with Watt’s vocal acrobatics. The opening aria of this cantata is bound to leave listeners gasping for air or at least leaving them with the feeling of witnessing something extraordinary. I’m reminded of Mozart’s work written for sopranos and I’m amazed at what the human voice can accomplish. I’m also humbled by the discipline and training that prepares a vocalist for this music.

While the religious text presented on this CD is too somber for my taste (I’m not religious), the virtuoso musicianship, the musicians’ and art director’s (Harry Bicket) sensitivity and rich interpretations of the music rises to the occasion. I find the music sad, but relaxing alternating with a few thrilling moments in which Watts reaches to the depths of her talent and delivers a spectacular performance. For Bach collectors, this CD is a must, while others reading this blog (not as familiar with J.S. Bach), might find the recording requires a steep learning curve. Having said that, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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