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GRAMOPHONE (November / 2017)
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Reviewer: Jonathan Freeman-Attwood

Both of Bach’s great solo bass cantatas reflect on the voyage of the soul, Ich habe genug essentially as a contemplation on the art of death and Ich will den Kreuzstab a journey of discipleship in living out the road to Calvary. If the bass-baritone voice brings special warmth and intimacy as well as nobility to these texts, then the key is perhaps the use of the first person: memorable performances reveal the singer’s heart and demand him almost to enact each cantata as a quasi-‘scena’. Michael Volle is nothing if not involved and his carefully declaimed singing projects an often effective didactic approach – a facet which signposts the listener through Ich habe genug and is wonderfully underscored by the evocative oboe-playing of Xenia Löffler (assuming it’s her, the first of three listed), and the secure, unobtrusive playing of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. The constant worry, though, is Volle’s wildly inconsistent vocal production. The top of the voice is regularly strained and, in the potentially transcendental ‘Schlummert ein’, unsettled intonation prevails to the extent that one wonders quite how it passed muster on release.  

In terms of grasping the essence of the rhetorical state, Volle appears far more comfortable in the dark, rolling hills of Kreuzstab than the world-weary conceits of Ich habe genug and Cantata No 158, Der Friede sei mit dir, where abstraction of line and subtlety of colour become sine qua nons, apparent in the recorded feats of Hans Hotter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (for Ristenpart, not Richter) and most recently Matthias Goerne. Again, flatness detracts, crucially at the mesmerising point in the first aria (from 3'40" to 4'32") where Bach takes the imagery at face value, climbing unimpeded through the line, through adversity and into a melisma of such devastating release (‘the Cross … leads me after my torments to God, into the promised land’) that after you’ve heard Barry McDaniel for Fritz Werner, the stakes become stratospheric.  

If Volle is a considerable disappointment, the instrumental fillers burst with life, full of all the textural panache one associates with the Berliners. Raphael Alpermann’s organ obbligato in the Sinfonia of Cantata No 169 stands out, exquisitely characterised and with the glowing inner parts of this busy score radiantly projected. Pictures abound in the booklet but there’s not a text to be seen.

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