BACH Psalm 51 VIVALDI Nisi Dominus
Bach’s engagement with music by his Italian contemporaries is clear from his transcriptions of Vivaldi and copies of church music by Lotti. He probably made his own arrangement of Pergolesi’s celebrated Stabat mater in the mid-1740s (and its influence on the setting of ‘Et incarnatus est’ added to the Mass in B minor a few years later is irrefutable). Bach used an anonymous parody text of Psalm 51, ‘Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden’, modified both the vocal and string orchestral parts where necessary to accommodate the different German words, and also added a viola part independent from the cellos on the bass-line. This has been recorded umpteen times, not least by the Theatre of Early Music (BIS, 11/09) and The Bach Players (Hyphen Press).
Nevertheless, this is a profoundly thoughtful new interpretation by countertenor Damien Guillon, who directs his own ensemble Le Banquet Céleste and is joined by soprano Céline Scheen. The hallmarks of their compassionate performance are relaxed, natural singing and astute, sophisticated playing. The close recording means that the violins dominate Guillon’s voice a little more than one might wish, whereas Scheen projects more firmly on account of a hint of steel within her silky singing; the duet ‘Schaue nicht auf meine Sünden’ is a perfect example of unforced momentum, flawless intonation of the two voices and sweet shapeliness from the instrumentalists (even if Bach’s modifications take some getting used to).
Guillon places Bach’s Pergolesian psalm alongside Vivaldi’s much earlier Nisi Dominus, probably composed relatively early in the Red Priest’s association with Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà. Guillon’s masterful long notes are sung with breathtaking sweetness and the muted strings are utterly beguiling during ‘Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum’ (the intimate core of the psalm). If anything, the rapturous combination of Baptiste Lopez’s viola d’amore obbligato and Guillon’s intelligent singing in ‘Gloria Patri et Filio’ is even better.