J. C. Bach: La dolce fiamma

Philippe Jaroussky; Le Cercle de l'Harmonie/Jérémie Rhorer (Virgin 6857260)

12 January 2010 2.5 stars

JarousskyThere has been a strong resurgence in the popularity of Handel's operas over the last ten years, complete with textual editions and period performance practices informed by the solid scholarship that results from research into the primary sources. We are able to hear music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries performed with greater stylistic accuracy than ever before, and with the Handel renaissance well underway, conductors, instrumentalists, and singers have begun to turn their attention to other important composers that might benefit from the 'historically informed performance practice' approach.

Specifically, the development of Italian opera between Handel and Mozart has received recent attention with recordings from Cecilia Bartoli, Karina Gauvin, Simone Kermes, Diana Damrau, Vivica Genaux, and others. Among the 'neglected' composers from this bridge between the Baroque and Classical periods, a name mostly new to recordings is Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, and – as it turns out – an exciting and talented composer of Italian opera seria. The newest release from the young countertenor Philippe Jaroussky features eight operatic arias and two concert arias that give an impressively broad overview of J. C. Bach's compositional range.

Jaroussky has made quite a sensational splash on the European opera scene over the last couple of years, while focusing – not surprisingly – on repertoire identified with the great castrati, by composers including Handel, Porpora, Vivaldi, and Graun. Currently only 31 years of age, Jaroussky has a high-profile recording contract with Virgin, and this disc of Bach arias, 'La dolce fiamma', appears to be his sixth solo album. He and his collaborators, Jérémie Rhorer and Le Cercle de l'Harmonie have performed a valuable service to collectors of music from this period by focusing on J. C. Bach. The younger Bach's compositional style is markedly different from his father's, with a much-reduced emphasis on strict contrapuntalism, and a greatly enhanced focus on melody and dramatic instrumental effects. Notably, J. C. Bach was the only member of his large family to compose operas. During his career, he followed a geographical trajectory similar to that of his great predecessor, Handel, spending many years of study in Italy and subsequently moving to London. He developed an affinity for vocal display, in terms of both technical prowess and emotional communication, during his time in Italy. Additionally, his privileged position in London assured him of access to virtuoso orchestral forces, allowing him to compose his arias with vibrant instrumental support consisting of rich harmonies and intricate textures.

Jérémie Rhorer and Le Cercle de l'Harmonie cover themselves in glory from start to finish. There is a fine snap to the strings and diaphanous clarity of articulation in 'La legge accetto' from Orfeo ed Euridice that demands the listener's attention. In the following aria 'Caro, la dolce fiamma' from Adriano in Siria, the horns and winds stand out for their exceptional control and beauty. Special mention must also be made of the fine playing from the oboists in the Mozartian concert aria 'Ebben si vada… Io ti lascio'. In every aria, in fact, the individual instrumental parts are vital to the sonic texture. Bach did not write routine accompaniments; the instrumental soloists are often given equal importance with the vocal line. Fortunately, the recording quality is superb, giving the orchestra plenty of prominence and crystalline sonic clarity.

Unfortunately, while the instrumental accompaniments are stunningly impressive throughout, I remain unconvinced by the singing from Jaroussky. His voice is registered at the high soprano extreme of the countertenor range, and it has a certain ethereal beauty when allowed to flow gently at an unvarying dynamic level. He is a fine musician, singing with secure pitch and reasonably acceptable diction. Still, the list of shortcomings is substantial, and upon extended listening, the ear tires of his relentlessly monochromatic singing. For a singer who has apparently made a career based on the legacy of the castrato, Jaroussky offers precious few of the qualities that distinguished the singing of such greats as Guadagni, Farinelli, and Carestini. His range is very narrow: there is one solid octave, from about e' to e'' in which his voice maintains a homogeneous color and vibrancy. Above and below this octave, the tone fades away, loses focus, and/or discolors noticeably; some of the castrati were known for ranges stretching toward three octaves!

In addition, Jaroussky has a very limited dynamic range (anything more robust than mezzoforte turns sour), he cannot trill, his coloratura skill is limited, he doesn't offer imaginative ornamentation, his low register (one couldn't even venture to call it a 'chest' register) is transparently thin, and his characterizations display remarkably little diversity. The voice itself is so feminine and fragile that psychological extremes are beyond his reach: rage, hate, jubilation, and frustration are all inaccessible since he simply doesn't possess the vocal coloring to convincingly inhabit these emotions. Jaroussky succeeds best in the gentler, more lyrical selections such as the cavatina 'Perché tarda è mai la morte' from Artaserse, in which he can let the voice flow evenly and free of demanding dynamic contrasts. Other countertenors (not to mention such virtuosic mezzo-sopranos as Vivica Genaux) have brought far more robust voices and imaginative characterizations to music of this period. Still, I have to admit that Bach's music is well worth hearing, and Jaroussky – even with the flaws – does not stand in the way of the beauty and fascination waiting to be discovered in these arias. Hopefully, we will have the opportunity to hear other singers in this important repertoire.

By David Laviska