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Singers in Bach Vocal Works

Who are the great voices?

Robert Sherman wrote (July 27, 1998):
Who are the performers who turn out that level of gratification? I herein supply my nominations (baroque singers, not necessarily confined to Bach) and would really like to hear other people's views. My nominations (not ranked) follow.

Sopranos:
Kathleen Battle
Heather Harper
Emma Kirkby
Ely Ameling
Arleen Augér
Barbara Hendricks
Barbara Bonney
Nancy Argenta
Lucia Popp

Altos:
Yvonne Minton (Messiah with Somary)
Anne-Sophie von Otter
Janet Baker
Christa Ludwig
Hertha Töepper (St. John Passion with Richter)
Marjana Lipovsek (mezzo)

Tenors:
Ernst Haefliger
Philip Langridge
Fritz Wunderlich
Peter Schreier

Basses/baritones
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Hermann Prey
Raimund Herincx (Messiah with Mackerras)
John Tomlinson

I've not included countertenors because I've never heard any I enjoyed

Todd Michael Billeci wrote (July 27, 1998):
[To Robert Sherman] Hi Robert - great list...do you attend vocal recitals/operas regularly?? Your list contains huge voices that fill large halls and stand hairs on
end. I'll add exclamation points (!) for agreement & personal favorites with an asterisk (*):

Sopranos:
> Kathleen Battle <---- What Bach of hers have you heard?
> Heather Harper
> Emma Kirkby
> Ely Ameling
* Arleen Auger
* Barbara Hendricks
* Barbara Bonney
* Nancy Argenta
? wonder if recorded Bach:
* Lucia Popp

Altos:
> Yvonne Minton (Messiah with Somary)
!! Anne-Sophie von Otter
!! Janet Baker <------------ FAVORITE, ESP. FOR BERLIOZ & FAURE
> Christa Ludwig
> Hertha Toepper (St. John Passion with Richter)
* Marjana Lipovsek (mezzo)

Tenors:
> Ernst Haefliger
> Philip Langridge
> Fritz Wunderlich
* Peter Schreier

Basses/baritones
!! Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
> Hermann Prey
> Raimund Herincx (Messiah with Mackerras)
* John Tomlinson

< I've not included countertenors because I've never heard any I enjoyed >
* James Bowman -> His Vivaldi Stabat Mater under Hogwood on L'Oiseau-Lyre
is awesome. Haven't heard his Bach.

Ambroz Bajec-Lapajne wrote (July 27, 1998):
Robert Sherman wrote:
< Certainly, at today's prices, there's no point in wasting time or money on anything less than a supremely gratifying performance. >
Precisely.

And since I did NOT want to take part at the 'lonely island' party I'll take part in this one.

Sopranos
Emmy Kirkby
Barbara Bonney
Montserrat Figueres - a magnificent Caccini recording
Nancy Argenta - I'm attending her recital tomorrow... can't wait
Eva Mei

Altos
A. S. von Otter
Marjana Lipov¹ek - not in Bach, though !!

Countertenors
Michael Chance !!
Andreas Scholl
Drew Minter

Tenors
Anthony Rolfe Johnson !!
Ian Bostridge !!
Hans Peter Blochwitz
Christoph Prégardien - not always though

Basses
Olaf Bär !!
Stephen Varcoe
David Wilson-Johnson
Andreas Schmidt
Rodney Gilfry

Not necessary in that order! I believe there are some others I've forgot and I like very much what they do.

 

Who are the great voices? Battle?

Robert Sherman wrote (August 11, 1998):
Suzanne Long wrote:
< I'm afraid that as a Baroque singer myself, I'd have to say that Kathleen Battle is certainly not one of my preferances when it comes to Baroque music. She sings with far too much tension and vibrato for my taste, and I think her Purcell is deplorable. Give her Puccini or Wagner however, and she takes the world...
My opinion would be to try a recording of Emma Kirkby, or perhaps Julianne Baird...
Suzanne, thanks for your response re Battle. I'd be surprised if she had the power to do Puccini well, or Wagner even more so. She seems to have recorded only one excerpt CD of each, both with Levine.

Kirkby's white pure voice is one of the wonders of the world (her tempo on "Jauchzet Gott" is unbelievable) but nothing I've heard from her does anything for me musically. Maybe I haven't heard the right stuff. Can you suggest specific recordings?

If you're able to listen to Battle's "Rejoice" on the Grace CD, and/or the Harper/Jackson "Redeemer", I'd like to hear your reaction.

Suzanne Long wrote (August 20, 1998):
< Robert Sherman wrote: Kirkby's white pure voice is one of the wonders of the world (her tempo on "Jauchzet Gott" is unbelievable) but nothing I've heard from her does anything for me musically. Maybe I haven't heard the right stuff. Can you suggest specific recordings? >
I'm sorry for the lateness of this reply, but I have been out of town.

Many people do not take to Kirkby's vocal presentation, and she has a pure tone that we are not used to, I think, with modern ears. She does a really interesting job of singing three roles in Hogwood's "Indian Queen" by Purcell. (Yes I know, it's not J.S. Bach, but it is a good recording), and I really enjoyed her singing on the ancient recording of her doing the Peasant Cantata (BWV 212) and the Coffee Cantata (BWV 211) -- the one with the strange greeen cover and she and the baritone are in goofy period costumes... I don't have in in front of me and I can't remember the label.

I think, for the most part, that Kirkby has one of those voices that one either loves, or can't stand. I am of the previous, so I'm probably a little biased. Anyway,. I hope that is of some help.

 

Singers and Works

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (November 28, 2000):
There was some mention of various singers deemed great in the many good posts about the SMP (as she is referred to here; so in Rome, I will be a Roman). F-D and Haefliger and Giebel and others were noted as making one recording great. Quastoff too was earlier noted. To some extent, this is a separate question (IMHO) from a great performance of Bach or any other composer's great masterpieces. Obviously not a totally separate question. I have many Bach large works and smaller works in recordings where, I don't really think that much of the total performance, but one singer is someone whom I can't do without and have a full life. For me one of these has always been the Bach contralto, Hilde Rössl-Majdan whose various cantata recordings I have long cherished (probably never re-released on CD) and who did 2 SMPs at different stages of her career, an earlier one with Scherchen and a later one with Mogens Wöldike. The latter, after playing for 30 years on LP's, I recently have gotten on CD (both times Vanguard). I actually very much enjoy the whole performance, but she is the main reason I have it. Ditto for Kathleen Ferrier whose (sonically awful, live performances) of both the SMP and the Messe in H moll with vK I likewise cherish and even have the very unidiomatic English lang. SMP with. Here the style is awful, but she is in glorious voice. If not for Ferrier I would never lister to that recording.

 

Bach's Singers

David Richie wrote (November 16, 2007):
We all know Bach's solo parts are very hard. Is there anything to suggest that talented singers from the court opera in Dresden may have traveled to Leipzig to sung Bach's music, at least on major occasions?

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 16, 2007):
David Richie wrote:
< We all know Bach's solo parts are very hard. Is there anything to suggest that talented singers from the court opera in Dresden may have traveled to Leipzig to sung Bach's music, at least on major occasions? >
This is a major problem for modern audiences. The evidence in irrefutable that boys with unchanged voices sang both the soprano and alto solos in Bach's vocal works. Bach's churches prohbited women (some Lutheran churches bent the rules) and, although castrati probably sang in the Dresden chapel royal, there doesn't seem to be any evidence that Bach's churches would have permitted such exotic creatures. Counter-tenors or male altos appear to have sung in the 16th and 17th century repertoire of some of Bach's earlier postings, but boys sang Bach's works in Leipzig.

That leaves us with the hypothesethat either Bach's boys were superhumanly superior to modern choirboys (a position that produced past firestorms on this forum) or that Bach was forced to debase his works with mediocre
performers, a positon that still crops up in modern concert program notes.

Neither hypothesis is probable. I suspect that we can never recapture the sound of an experienced 17-year old youth singing a Bach aria with an unchanged voice, just as we cannot recreate the haut-contre singer crucial to the performance of French Baroque church music, or the castrato sound on which Baroque opera depends.

Peter Smaill wrote (November 16, 2007):
[To Douglas Cowling] Certainly there were castrati at Dresden (not Leipzig). Janice? B Stockigt thinks there may be an indication that the extraordinary vocal range and skills of the Dresden Hochkapelle may have influenced the BMM's (BWV 232) composition:

"Bach seems to have borne in mind the capabilities of the instrumentalists and singers - the castrati especially-of the Dresden Hofkapelle when assembling and composing the movements of the Missa. Already in 1731 he had heard these musicians when he and Wilhelm Friedemann travelled to Dresden to hear a performance of Hasse' s "Cleofide". in 1733 the sopranao castrati of the Hochkapelle were Venturio Rochetti (Venturini) and Giovanni Bindi;...."

Stockigt names all the main singers and goes on to compare the vocal range of an oratorio by Zelenka known to be for these voices, with the (equally enormous) range required in the BMM (BWV 232). On the other hand , she notes that by royal command the sung mass was never to exceed 45 minutes. So while the BMM (BWV 232) and 1731 Missa were written with Dresden in mind, the old problem remains of the improbability that a normal liturgical performance was intended. The Hofkapelle also had a 16 foot violone and a theorbo, and of course there is no sign of parts for these in the BMM (BWV 232)........unfortunately one is tempted to add!

Julian Mincham wrote (November 16, 2007):
[To Peter Smaill] thanks for this info.? Could you please post the full reference of Stockigt's book or article?? I haven't come across it.?

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 16, 2007):
Peter Smaill wrote:
< Stockigt names all the main singers and goes on to compare the vocal range of an oratorio by Zelenka known to be for these voices, with the (equally enormous) range required in the BMM (BWV 232). On the other hand , she notes that by royal command the sung mass was never to exceed 45 minutes. So while the BMM (BWV 232) and 1731 Missa were written with Dresden in mind, the old problem remains of the improbability that a normal liturgical performance was intended. >
Is the source of your quote?

Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) A Bohemian Musician at the Court of Dresden anice B. Stockigt OUP: http://www.oup.com/uk/catalogue/?ci=9780198166221

The first chapter can downloaded as a PDF.

I'm curious about the length parameters. Stauffer compares the Mass in B Minor (BWV 232) with other large-scale works performed at Dresden. Was the 45 minute rule applied only when the king was present? Louis XIV never had high mass when he was present, rather a silent 20 minute low mass during which the choir sang a grand motet by the likes of DeLalande and Lully.

Perhaps the king was related to the Collerdos of Salzburg.

David Richie wrote (November 17, 2007):
Introducing Myself, and More on Bach's Singers

Should have introduced myself before posting my question about Bach's singers.

I am 57, a former tenor, presently a lawyer, and church baritone. Did much oratorio work in my "Ute," in addition to a lot of professional opera chorus and some comprimario work.

I found Bach's tenor parts (solo and chorus) almost impossibly high. (I think the first chorus alone of BWV 80 has 14 high A's, for example.) I would have loved to sing Bach at original pitch but that wasn't possible in Washington DC in the 1970s.

Any thoughts on vocal techniques of tenors (specifically) in Bach's day? Did they sing with what we now call a mixed voice at the top, as do many of today's oratorio tenors?

Given the smaller total population of Germany in Bach's day, there must have been proportionately fewer people born with quality voices. Perhaps in Bach's day ALL the kids born with good voices were discovered singing in church, and funneled into the choir, whereas maybe today, most of them play ice hockey and never realize the true calling.

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 17, 2007):
David Richie wrote:
< Given the smaller total population of Germany in Bach's day, there must have been proportionately fewer people born with quality voices. Perhaps in Bach's day ALL the kids born with good voices were discovered singing in church, and funneled into the choir, whereas maybe today, most of them play ice hockey and never realize the true calling. >
I actually think there was a larger pool of singers because communal singing was a civic and religious virtue and everyone sang. In Bach's school, all of the students were expected to sing, take music lessons and assume leadership roles in the services. Even the tone-deaf and bad voices were expected to be part of one of the four choirs. The talent would then rise through the choirs with the cream of the singers reachng the first choir which sang Bach's cantatas and oratorios. Today with the arts marginalized and communal music gone forever, it is increasingly difficult to find singers who have had a lifetime of training and experience even though the general population is probably 10 or 15 times what it was in Bach's day.

 

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Last update: żNovember 17, 2007 ż10:44:02