JS Bach’s ‘Ich habe genug’: a guide to the best recordings
Monday, November 6, 2023
The meditative Cantata No 82, among the most emotive of Bach’s 200 or so such works, has inspired a range of highly effective recordings over the past three-quarters of a century
When the Leipzig faithful took their pews for Sunday morning service on February 2, 1727, it seems unlikely they could have foreseen that the cantata their Kantor was to provide that day would be quite so extraordinarily moving. The occasion was the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, whose Gospel for the day – upon which the cantata, like the sermon, was designed to reflect – is the passage in St Luke in which the infant Jesus is presented at the Temple, whereupon the aged Israelite Simeon recognises him as the long-awaited Messiah and declares himself ready to receive death. His words – the famous lines beginning ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’ – are the so-called ‘Song of Simeon’, and although the cantata does not actually quote this text, it makes it the starting point for a classically Lutheran meditation on death as a release from life’s travails.
It was a subject Bach often returned to, but surely never with such persuasive power as in Ich habe genug. Like a Schubert song, it sets its emotional world in the first seconds, its expressive force seizing us, entrancing us and making it impossible to do anything but submit to it. Yet at the same time it is gentle with that special Bachian balm, aching with consolatory feeling. It is a piece that looks reality in the eye while acknowledging our fears and reassuring us. Suffused with the complex state of mind Albert Schweitzer described as ‘nostalgia for death’, it shows us how to die well and move towards blissful afterlife, arriving there comforted and purified.
Written for a solo bass with a small orchestra of strings and continuo, plus a beautiful obbligato part for oboe, its opening aria establishes a mood of near-exhausted resignation as the sinuously intertwining lines of oboe and singer stroke the soul in a way that only Bach can. The succeeding recitative invites the listener to join with Simeon in relinquishing the world, but it is in the second aria, ‘Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen’, that death and its sweet repose are embraced most fully in one of Bach’s most tender creations, a spacious lullaby of surpassing peace and warmth. A short recitative explicitly bids the world ‘good night’, before a gaily dancing final aria, concerto-like in spirit (‘Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod’), anticipates death with unequivocal gladness.
Ich habe genug is best known in its first-performed version, for bass in C minor, but there are signs that when Bach began it he was thinking of an alto singer. In the early 1730s he made a full-blown version for soprano, this time in E minor and with flute obbligato instead of oboe. The piece has thus been able to attract a good number of the finest basses, sopranos and altos of the past seven decades. Oboists, too, have found a fine showcase here; there is not room to mention them all in this article, but their illustrious names are included in the discography below.
Early days – the 1950s and ’60s
Ich habe genug has long been among Bach’s most-recorded cantatas, no doubt for its tidy concision and relatively modest forces as well as its beauties. Its layout – three arias of greatly unequal length – probably made it difficult to accommodate on 78, but the first LP version was a worthy pioneer in 1950 from no less a figure than Hans Hotter. Predictably, Hotter’s technique enables him to move smoothly and certainly through the twisting lines of the first aria and to create a Wagnerian sense of deep time in an unhurried second. At the same time his voice has a despondent tone that – together with the languishing strings of the Philharmonia under Anthony Bernard – captures a strong sense of world-weariness. Despite a murky recorded sound, this is an account of affecting nobility.
The piece struck lucky again the following year, when the 26-year-old Dietrich Fischer‑Dieskau made his first recording. Immediately apparent is the greater clarity and focus not only of Fischer-Dieskau’s voice – lighter and higher-lying – but also of that great given in any performance of his: intelligent treatment of text. ‘Schlummert ein’ moves more swiftly and with greater variety of articulation from the Karl Ristenpart Chamber Orchestra but the faster notes of the finale challenge the singer’s agility, which he perhaps attempts to compensate for with a stern, even slightly cross tone. His return to the cantata in 1968 with Karl Richter and the Munich Bach Orchestra is more lyrical, soft and loving, if a touch drawn-out and sluggish in the first aria and recitatives. ‘Schlummert ein’ combines a good walking pace with warm string tone and the odd surprisingly animated moment, but passagework is stiff again in the otherwise boisterous finale. A third recording with Helmuth Rilling in 1983 does not improve on the first two.
Gérard Souzay’s recording later in the decade with the Geraint Jones Orchestra placed the orchestra at the back of the balance, no doubt the better to highlight the singing, which is suavely lyrical and glints with his own type of textual clarity. The opening aria is full of solemnly measured emotion, the recitatives float like ariosos, and ‘Schlummert’ rests Souzay’s clean but ardent lines on pillows of rich string sound. The finale is a bit stiff and stompy but overall this is a performance of touching lyrical skill. A second recording in 1968 with Helmut Winschermann and the Deutsche Bachsolisten (3/70) has its beauties (not least a dreamy instrumental opening), but Souzay’s voice sounds tired and his declamation over-emphasised – anything but a soul at peace.
Hermann Prey made his first recording of Ich habe genug in 1959 with the Gewandhaus Orchestra under Leipzig’s then Thomaskantor, Kurt Thomas. His voice is rich and smooth, but the outer arias are sluggish, with heavy strings leaving a rather reedy oboe somewhat forlorn. They are more graceful in ‘Schlummert’, one of the slowest performances on record yet managing not to sound like it thanks to the oiled beauty of the singing – a comfy bed indeed for Simeon to lie on. Prey is more nuanced, ardent and in places firmer in his second recording in 1967, which is also blessed by a better balance and more pointed articulation from the Menuhin Orchestra.
Three years before, John Shirley‑Quirk had given us a committed reading of slow and lingering feeling with Raymond Leppard and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, especially in a first aria that speaks of tiredness and dejection in every trudged-out beat. Shirley-Quirk’s tone is surprisingly hard in ‘Schlummert’ but the expressive shaping from both soloist and orchestra in this movement is highly effective. ‘Ich freue mich’, with its buoyant orchestral articulation, is the most dancelike yet, despite a steady pace.
In 1966 the first ‘non-bass’ recording arrived in the form of Janet Baker and the Bath Festival Orchestra under Yehudi Menuhin. The opening aria is quite a contrast from what has gone before, light on its feet with a firm push on the first beat of the bar. Needless to say Baker’s singing, while a little unvaried in declamation, brings laser-like lyrical focus. ‘Schlummert’ has an inner intensity that commands attention, as does a second recitative that vividly illustrates fear of death giving way to acceptance. A clumpy finale cannot stop this from being a memorable reading.
New sounds in the 1970s and ’80s
The lightly pointed articulation of Menuhin hints at what was to come with the period-instrument revolution of the succeeding decades. Philippe Huttenlocher’s 1977 recording with the Vienna Concentus Musicus and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, part of Das Alte Werk’s complete Bach cantata cycle, was among the first on what in those days they called ‘authentic instruments’. Here the strong beats are pushed out even more firmly by the orchestra, giving a feel of earnest, tender emotion from which the finale bursts free into muscular joyousness. Harnoncourt’s more usual Bach bass, Max van Egmond, followed a month later, lucid and gentlemanly as ever with an unnamed period band under Frans Brüggen. The brisk tempos and light orchestral touch here sound beautiful, and succeed in making a strangely perky demeanour quite appealing.
The first countertenor to enter the field appears to have been René Jacobs in 1987 with Chiara Banchini’s Ensemble 415. Jacobs’s instantly recognisable voice – hard, narrow-toned and sometimes swoopy – will not appeal to everyone, but there is no doubting his artistry and there is much of interest here. True, the firmly detailed articulation risks disjointing the arias, yet they are intelligently expressive, while Jacobs’s expertly realised recitatives are arguably the most dramatically effective of anyone’s.
More countertenors and mezzos
The strong leads given by Baker and Jacobs in performing the alto version took a surprisingly long time to be followed up. Jochen Kowalski turned to it in 1993 in the company of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and Kenneth Sillito, and his smooth operatic sound and unapologetic vibrato create a strong lyrical impression in both arias and recitatives. Rather rushed tempos, however, plus some almost aggressively emphasised accompaniment (especially in ‘Schlummert’) prevent it from reaching full expressive potential. A year later Nathalie Stutzmann recorded a spacious, deeply felt version whose only fault is perhaps to try too hard in places to envelop listeners in the warm embrace of her rich, low-lying voice, thereby hampering the music’s flow (for example in ‘Ich freue mich’). Its tender atmosphere is realised beautifully, however, in the playing of The Hanover Band under Roy Goodman, with Anthony Robson an exceptionally sensitive oboe soloist.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s recording with the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music under Craig Smith comes with an emotional pre-load, given that in 2001 she sang it in Peter Sellars’s shattering staging wearing the hospital robe and trailing tubes of a terminally ill patient, knowing that she herself had been diagnosed with cancer. Oh that this performance were available on video! The circumstances were bound to create their own interpretative imperatives, and Hunt Lieberson does not appear to have given them up in the audio follow-up. Like Baker she has a voice of unstoppable intensity that can leave the listener reeling, though she is more flexible and finds more vulnerability in the music. The emotional swings in ‘Schlummert’ are devastating. This is not the only way with this piece, but it is a must-hear.
Eighteen years after Kowalski, Andreas Scholl picked up the baton for countertenors with the Basel Chamber Orchestra directed by Julia Schröder. He sings beautifully – of course he does – even though his most gloriously honeyed days were already past. ‘Schlummert’ is a predictable treat, but his lack of involvement in textual detail is disappointing; is there anything happening in those recitatives? Iestyn Davies struck a better balance in 2015 in a recording that won a Gramophone Award; his voice has not quite the supreme richness of Scholl’s but it is still easily attractive and exquisitely skilled, and while he is alert to the work’s interpretative demands he never overworks them. He receives expert support, too, from Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo, whose intimate one-to-a-part sound brings out the music’s inner counterpoint and grainily sharpens its expressive edge.
Also in 2015 came Philippe Jaroussky with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, a curious version whose more openly operatic approach, though compelling at times, also results in some awkward ornaments (from the oboe, too), long-lingered cadences and somewhat vulgar octave transpositions that seem to work more against the music than for it. Similar stagey mannerisms, plus more than a few little swoops, vibratos and other enhancements, can be heard in Bejun Mehta’s recording with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin led by Bernhard Forck. Though true to Mehta’s habitual lustrous singing style, it seems less appropriate to this music – Bach as it might have been sung by Farinelli, perhaps.
It is surprising that only a handful of sopranos have been attracted to Ich habe genug in its E minor soprano-and-flute version but the results have often been impressive. Nancy Argenta is ever-so-slightly covered by the band in her 1993 recording with Ensemble Sonnerie led by Monica Huggett, but they play so beautifully – seemingly taking their lead from the hushed, dreamlike caress of Lisa Beznosiuk’s flute to shape every bar with exquisitely well-judged expressive gives and takes – that they can certainly be forgiven. Argenta shows her usual ethereally floated tone and poise, but not without plenty of telling interpretative detail and an almost fearful vulnerability that tugs at the heart; the tentative forward push of urgency at ‘let us follow this man’ in the first recitative, usually sung in a rather measured way, has you catching your breath.
By comparison, Emma Kirkby’s recording with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra led by Gottfried von der Goltz shows greater directness in both sound and delivery. She has such confidence in this music, and is at her best here, her shining voice bolder and more penetrating than Argenta’s, her contrasts of dynamic and projection wider, and her natural, constantly active engagement with the words quite possibly the most engaging of all.
For the E minor Ich habe genug in his complete cantata cycle with the Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki chose Carolyn Sampson, to be rewarded by singing of typical natural radiance and expression. Like Kirkby, Sampson sounds so entirely at home that you are almost not aware of how she is making the music work for us – though few could fail to note the still-small pianissimo of the final da capo in ‘Schlummert’. Suzuki also conjures a finale of energising lightness and speed.
Ian Bostridge is not a soprano, of course, but his unique appropriation of the E minor version of Ich habe genug for tenor deserves mention, especially as Bach cruelly only wrote one solo cantata for that voice. The strings of Fabio Biondi’s Europa Galante are probably guilty of over-clipped articulation (slightly irritating), but Bostridge’s lyrically affecting voice, with its inbuilt plangent colouring, effortlessly takes wing with no need for emotional tics. An odd match-up, perhaps, but worth hearing nonetheless.
Back to basses
Despite the successes of these alternative versions, it is the basses who have continued to dominate the landscape in the doleful world of Ich habe genug, and indeed several of them have recorded it more than once. Peter Kooy, surely one of the most prolific of Bach singers, made his recording in 1991 with Philippe Herreweghe and La Chapelle Royale. As ever the music is lovingly handled by Herreweghe, though in doing so he flirts with wallowing too much, allowing the strings to become indistinct. Kooy, on the other hand, serves a classic Bachian mix of textual detail, fine definition and tonal security. His singing in his second recording 15 years later was no less textbook, though this time with a more relaxed flow and softer, rounded tone. There is better-lit string sound and firmer direction from Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan, too. The only reservation might be that ‘Schlummert ein’ is – dare I say it? – a touch too sleepy.
Klaus Mertens’s first recording, with Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande in 1993, shows him firmly in the traditional Bachian bass mould, though with a clearer and higher-lying voice than many, if also slightly less stable. The first aria here is cautiously, perhaps waveringly trodden out, and his voice comes and goes rather in ‘Schlummert’. When he came back to the piece in 2001 for Ton Koopman’s cantata cycle with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra his voice had darkened and solidified somewhat, and there is also a great deal more coherent feeling in his reading of the piece, whose power to move comes from the exceedingly intimate, tender, almost confidential approach of singer and players alike, even in the finale.
It was a complete cycle that brought Peter Harvey to the piece in a live performance with the English Baroque Soloists, recorded as part of John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Pilgrimage in 2000. Harvey dares to present a ‘Schlummert’ to rival the slowness of Hotter and Shirley-Quirk but gets away with it thanks to his own communicative honesty and Gardiner’s grandly shaped orchestral direction. The details of this get a little over-busy elsewhere, however, and this performance still needs either a patient listener or one in the right mood.
Another singer who has recorded the cantata twice is Matthias Goerne, though so good was he the first time that it is hard to see why a second was thought necessary. Surely few, and certainly none among the basses, have managed such a mix of vocal beauty, technical excellence and interpretative intelligence. No mopey moroseness here; instead Goerne firmly projects a soul strengthened, refreshed and ready to step into the next life. The modern instruments of the Camerata Academica Salzburg, with Albrecht Mayer on oboe, play beautifully, and Roger Norrington as usual finds arresting atmospheres and incisive ideas. Goerne’s second recording, made in 2017 with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and Gotfried von der Goltz (Harmonia Mundi), neither reaches these heights nor offers new insights. Goerne sounds weary (in the wrong way), and the recording is beset by too close an acquaintance with his in‑breaths.
Thomas Quasthoff does not quite have the vocal polish of Goerne – there is an edge to the sound sometimes and some occasional intonation lapses – but he is a good match for him in interpretative skill. Of all versions this is the one that comes closest to the quick-wittedness and speech-like immediacy of lieder, and indeed the performance as a whole is imbued with a songlike spirit of affecting intimacy. The Berlin Baroque Soloists under Rainer Kussmaul (modern instruments again, as well as Mayer) are right on the mark.
Among the most recent recordings perhaps the pick comes from Matthew Brook in 2020 with John Butt and the Dunedin Consort. Brook’s voice is not the smoothest – indeed, there is sometimes a little rasp – but he is a born communicator, and this is a performance that speaks to you with heart-warming sincerity. A creepingly quiet ‘Schlummert’ has the heartbreaking tenderness of a parent’s lullaby, while ‘Ich freue mich’, though a little shouty in its way, seems to signal a release of real human joy. It is hard not to be touched by this kindly performance.
Comparing recordings of a Bach piece usually presents a special challenge. So perfectly are they constructed, so complete is their notation and so little dependent are they on the specifics of the instruments they are performed on that you will not find as diverse a range of interpretations as you would with, say, Monteverdi, Rameau or even Handel. With Bach, making a choice can come down to elements you might feel differently about on different days, and which can often be very small and apparently insignificant. All of the recorded performances of Ich habe genug mentioned above are capable of expressing something important about the piece, but several have affected me deeply as a listener, more of them indeed than can be listed as recommendations.
This is not just any Bach; this is special Bach demanding the highest standards of communication, and for that reason I must seek out the ones that address the music’s message most affectingly. I was moved in various ways, therefore, by Hotter, Fischer-Dieskau, Baker, Hunt Lieberson, Davies, Argenta, Kirkby, Mertens (2001), Goerne (1999), Quasthoff and Brook, and would gladly listen to any of them at any time, but in the end – and with much respect for the others – it was Goerne’s first recording that I felt most likely to choose the most often, seeming to me to have the best all-round package of voice, meaning and musical sophistication. The sensitive and imaginative accompanying of Norrington and the Camerata Academica Salzburg was an important factor, too. Do not worry, though, if one of the others is your favourite; this miraculous, comforting piece will rarely disappoint.
This article originally appeared in the Awards 2023 issue of Gramophone magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today