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GRAMOPHONE (12/2021)
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Reviewer: Jonathan Freeman-Atwood

On the surface there is no recognisable thread that logically ties together the contents of this mouth-watering recital, although the note describes ‘a portrayal of affliction and repentance as well as joy and desire through the works, sacred and profane, of these two composers’. This is all about the mesmerising Sabine Devieilhe traversing the vocal rhetoric of exceptional masterpieces by the two defining masters of north German music before the 19th century, with her distinctive manipulation of line and text, and gorgeous tonal production.

Beginning with the flirtatious strains of one of the more languid devotional songs from Schemelli’s Leipzig anthology of 1736 (to which Bach contributed a small group), and on to the labyrinthine maturity of the virtuoso Sinfonia of Cantata No 146 – urgently delivered with pliable concerto dialogues between the fluorescent organ of Matthieu Boutineau and the strings and oboes of Raphaël Pichon’s Pygmalion – we are clearly limbering up for something significant. This becomes apparent in the generous programme of two prize solo cantatas by Bach framed by a clutch of Handel arias, dominated by a pair of showstoppers from Julius Caesar and interleaved by two brief but affecting examples from the increasingly ubiquitous Brockes Passion.

One of the things we learnt from Devieilhe and Pygmalion’s ‘Mozart and the Weber Sisters’ (11/15) – winner of the 2016 Gramophone Award in the Recital category – is how juxtapositions, seemingly odd on first acquaintance, can bring new perspectives to different worlds by drawing them together in mysterious and unforeseeable narratives. One masterstroke of that project was how the fury of ‘Der Hölle Rache’ from The Magic Flute was given a kind of rerun by the instrumental Entr’acte from the incidental music from Thamos, King of Egypt from 15 or so years earlier; although heard after the Queen of the Night, the musical language seems captivatingly prescient, especially when we are thrust back to the March of the Priests.

In this project, the stakes are arguably even higher, between Handel’s sacred and secular landscapes. We move intriguingly from Mary’s personal pain as Jesus is dragged away declaiming ‘where are you leading him, vile murderers?’, and the subsequent dialogue between mother and son in the exquisite and tantalisingly short duet ‘Soll mein Kind’ (Devieilhe is joined by the rapt singing of baritone Stéphane Degout), towards a febrile account of Cleopatra’s

‘Se pietà’ from Caesar: an unlikely pair of women bewailing a common fate in the face of cruelty and pain.

Devieilhe shamelessly sails through these essays in loss, whoever the protagonist. The singing is almost indecently ravishing and yet she never takes you beyond the brink, even when she sails into stratospheric ornaments. The second pairing from the same works ‘releases’ the suffering by introducing the assuaging allegory of Beauty in the fading light of ‘Pure del Cielo’ from Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. Cathartic and airy, with the shadow of a gleaming solo violin at her right-hand side, the lament is now posited with redemption. In this extraordinarily original tableau of intersecting ‘scenas’, Pichon’s Pygmalion offer unerringly resonant and responsive accompaniments.

Redemption is always likely to win out in Bach cantatas, whether the voyage moves from pain to joy (No 199) or is simply an unadulterated paean of praise (No 51). Here we have arguably the finest account of Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut since Elly Ameling’s for Helmut Winschermann (Philips, 8/71). As one of the small number of cantatas surviving from Weimar, performances of this most substantial and richly inflected of Bach’s solo cantatas can often seem suffocating and lose its overall shape.

This reading employs a deft strategy where each aria commands its distinctive emotional conceit in the journey. It is heartbreaking from the first accompagnato – with a vibrant orchestral presence that alluringly emboldens Devieilhe towards the longed-for reconciliation. In ‘Tief gebückt’, Bach combines profound remorse with the assurance of faith in a manner never quite repeated in his oeuvre. As a stand-alone aria, this is as beautiful and eloquently delivered as any Bach soprano-singing in recent years (alongside Carolyn Sampson’s ‘Wie zittern’ in Schumann’s edition of No 105 – Ondine, 8/18).

Devieilhe’s exceptional control and intonation appear in abundance in Jauchzet Gott, though more Lutheran straight-tothe-point, visceral projection might have better served the opening. This kind of coloratura is perhaps not her finest suit, and in the faster tempos Pygmalion lose some definition in the resonance of the Temple du St-Esprit in Paris – but these are minor complaints in another outstanding recorded experience from these artists. The final strains of the ‘Alleluja!’ of Jauchzet say it all.


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