Natalie Dessay

Bach: Cantatas, BWV 51, 82a, 199

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Nothing quite says "Bach" like the image of a woman lying face-up on some pavement, wearing a strapless black dress. Or so Natalie Dessay would have us believe. She also dedicates her new album of Bach cantatas to Martin Luther King. Welcome to the woolly world of Natalie Dessay singing Bach, accompanied by the fearless period-instrument group Le Concert d'Astrée under Emmanuelle Haïm. It's a bit easier to imagine Dessay in Handel than in Bach, partly because she sings German with an accent that those with the sound of the language in their heads will find difficult to forget. But most of all because her extremely strong personality pulls at the boundaries of self-effacement demanded by Bach's flawless melodies and intricate musical constructions. It's to her credit that her performances of these three familiar cantatas for soprano and instrumental ensemble ("Ich habe genug" is performed in its soprano version, BWV 82a) are consistently listenable, and at times brilliant. The sterling example of the latter is the aria "Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen" (track 7), which Dessay turns into a kind of gentle cradle song to herself. Elsewhere Dessay takes unorthodox, rather dramatic approaches to the texts, emphasizing unexpected words like "Hoffen" (hopes) in the opening aria of "Ich habe genug" (track 5). Her flashing silver voice is exciting up among the trumpets of the Cantata No. 51, "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen," BWV 51, but the performances don't quite have the well-oiled quality one conventionally expects from Bach. None of this is the fault of Haïm and her band, who have made innovative recordings combining Baroque instruments with the distinctive voices of modern opera singers, and in the main made them work. It's treacherous to assign a definitive judgment to a recording like this, but one can guess that it will be essential for Dessay fans, if perhaps not for collectors of Bach cantata performances. All texts are in German, French, and English.

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