Bach: Music for alto

Bach: Music for alto
Barnaby Smith, Katie Jeffries-Harris

The Illyria Consort, Bojan Cičić
. 72’16

Bach composed some of his finest music for the alto voice. This recording from countertenor Barnaby Smith and Bojan Čičić’s Illyria Consort features two of the best-known alto cantatas, Ich habe genug (BWV 82) and Vergnügte Ruh, Beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170) alongside a wide selection of Bach’s other pieces for alto from the Matthew and St John Passions, the Mass in B minor, the Easter Oratorio and, on the digital version, the Christmas Oratorio. The music is arranged in a cycle moving from Candlemas, through the Passion to the Resurrection.

Although it is considered unwise to judge a book by its cover, there are some books, and CDs, whose covers invite judgement. This is one. As with his earlier debut Handel CD (which had a similar portrait photo cover), Barnaby Smith places himself as the focus of this recording, which is published on the record label of his own prominent VOCES8 choral organisation. But he does allow Bach to have larger name lettering than his own, which is more than some soloists allow. I am never sure of the wisdom of this approach to music promotion.

Although trained as a solo singer by, amongst others, Andreas Scholl, Barnaby Smith has since focussed on choir singing and direction with the VOCES8 choir – not a specialist early music choir but covering a very wide range of repertoire. Their next CD is Whitacre. However, his voice retains many reflections of Andreas Scholl’s voice, notably in the purity and beauty of tone, although he currently lacks Scholl’s precision of intonation and clarity of diction. The faster passages often lack an articulate vocal focus which is not helped by some slithering between notes. A habit of dissolving vowel sounds into each other also reduces effective diction. The duet with fellow VOCES8 mezzo Katie Jeffries-Harris Et In Unum Dominum Jesum Christum (from the Credo of the Mass In B Minor) reveals an interesting difference between the clarity of diction and focus of tone of the two singers.

When originally performed, most of this music would have been sung by a teenage boy on the cusp of adolescence from a gallery at the back of the church, accompanied by a full-sized church organ and orchestra. The sound of the solo voice would have grown out of the surrounding instrumental music, and it would have been heard from a distance by listeners. But here, the orchestral sound is pushed to the background, with the exception of the solo oboe which has a prominent aural focus, as of course, does Barnaby Smith. The recording was made in the VOCES8 Centre, the relatively small Wren-designed church of St Anne & St Agnes Church in the City of London. The acoustic bloom on the recording sounds rather more resonant than my recollections of the live sound in the building, so I wonder if the engineers have added anything to the acoustic (but see below).

The entire disc is devoted to the singer, with none of the contrasting instrumental pieces that would probably have featured in a live concert, if only to give the singer a rest. That said, the instrumental contributions from members of the Illyria Consort are excellent, notably from Leo Duarte, oboe and oboe da caccia, Joe Crouch, cello, Reiko Ichise, viola da gamba (in Es ist vollbracht!) and, notably, Steven Devine, organ, in the virtuoso organ obbligatos in the cantata Vergnügte Ruh, Beliebte Seelenlust. And of course the director and founder of the Illyria Consort, violinist Bojan Čičić.

* * *

Since first writing this review, the VOCES8 Foundation has released an elaborately filmed video of the recording which is available to view, for a fee, here as part of the VOCES8 “Live From London: Easter 2023”. The 1h50′ film includes all the music from the CD. An interview by Barnaby Smith’s VOCES8 co-founder and CEO brother Paul introduces the video, which starts with the interesting revelation that the recording was not preceded by any rehearsal, but recorded live, albeit in small sections (and in multiple takes) as the changes of clothing amongst the performers indicates.

A number of additional points arise from viewing this film, one being that for the recording they were all positioned in a circle. However, the microphone positions explain the ability of the sound engineers to balance between the oboe and voice and the other instruments. Each instrument was recorded by an individual microphone, giving scope for post-recording adjustment. I also wondered how much of the recording was influenced by the fact that it was all being filmed – by no fewer than eight cameras. An example is the extravagant gestures of the singer which seem to me to go far beyond what would be acceptable in a concert and, perhaps also beyond what would be used in private practice. I found it very distracting to watch.

It is now clear that the reason for the difference in acoustic between this recording and my recollections of the church space is, firstly, that the space has been completely cleared of all church paraphernalia and is now a high-end recording studio with an impressive supply of technical thingies, including a large set-up of cameras. In a discussion in the film, the extraordinarily complex editing process is described. Rather than being a live performance, the final recording is a stitched-together compilation of many takes and subsequent edits. As each instrument is separately miked, there is ample scope for twiddling with the balance and the overall acoustic, which might help to explain my observations above.

Whatever I might think of the details of this recording, I am sure it will do exceptionally well, given the enormous advertising and promotional possibilities of the VOCES8 Foundation and it enormous list of financial supporters. And with Barnaby Smith’s Andreas Scholl-inspired early music voice still ‘work in progress’ the already planned future recordings can only build on the musical success of this one.