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Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday, and since my favorite recordings (for now)* of two of those feature my first and second countertenor loves, Gérard Lesne and Kai Wessel, I thought it might be nice to talk a bit about how I came to appreciate these singers.

Because I grew up listening to Bach cantatas from the cantata recording project by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, hearing these every Sunday from when I was a small child, I was completely used to alto arias being sung by countertenors. I have become better at it, but sometimes I still feel as if I have to consciously switch something in my brain before I can listen to a female alto sing Bach and take it seriously.

However, none of the alto arias from that Leonhardt/Harnoncourt project (1970-1989), stayed with me the way many of the soprano, tenor, and bass arias did. The voices of René Jacobs or Paul Esswood just never blew me away nor did their singing truly move me. I remember enjoying Michael Chance’s singing on recordings of English Baroque composers and in the arias he sang in the live performance of Bach’s St. John Passion with Harnoncourt I mentioned in this post. But still, not blown away.

That all changed the summer of 1988 or 1989. Still a teenager, I had started volunteering for the Utrecht Early Music Festival in 1987. I did that for several years and then was on the summer staff for a few years as well, all this in the team that managed the Exhibition. The booth right around the corner from our own information booth was staffed by the best CD curator I’ve ever met, Joost. He went to all the concerts, and knew all the Early Music recordings, and I LOVED the recordings he recommended. It was through him that I learned about Gérard Lesne. The second or third year I was there, Joost was selling Lesne’s Vivaldi CD from 1988 to everyone with the words “Buy this. Listen to it. If you come back to me, look me in the eye, and can tell me without any sign of emotion that you didn’t like it, I’ll take it back.” (or, as he literally said in Dutch: “Als je me met droge ogen kunt vertellen dat je het niks vond, dan neem ik hem terug.”) I became a fan, and will never forget hearing Lesne live, singing Charpentier, in the Chapelle Royale of Versailles in the Holy Week of 1994.

Gérard Lesne is featured on a live audio recording from 1988 of Cantata 45 Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist which you can find here on YouTube. It is from a concert on October 25, 1988, in the Notre Dame du Travail church in Paris, by La Chapelle Royale (one of Herreweghe’s ensembles), conducted by Gustav Leonhardt. Other soloists are John Elwes, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.

Bach wrote this Cantata 45 in 1726 for the 8th Sunday after Trinity. Please find the score here, and the texts & translations here.

My blog post from 2016 about Cantata 136 Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz spotlights my second countertenor love: Kai Wessel. His voice and interpretation was nothing short of a sensation for me when Ton Koopman’s recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion came out in 1993. That a countertenor could also have such a beautiful tenor quality to his voice was new to me, and I found his singing incredibly moving. Thanks to this, I gained new appreciation for the “Erbarme dich” aria. Because of Kai Wessel singing the alto aria, the Bach Collegium Japan recording I recommended in 2016 is still my favorite interpretation of Cantata 136, though the live performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation from 2011 is very well done too, and that video is exciting because you can see the corno da tirarsi** in action in the amazing opening chorus.

Wieneke Gorter, August 2, 2020.

*This might change soon, because Herreweghe recorded this cantata program, including BWV 45, at the end of January 2020. I will let you know when this recording comes out. It is the first time they have recorded BWV 45 and 118, and I can’t wait to hear Alex Potter in BWV 198, and look forward to hearing BWV 78 with Dorothee Mields and Alex Potter in the famous duet, and Thomas Hobbs in the gorgeous but often overlooked tenor aria.

**to read more about the corno da tirarsi, and to see a picture of the instrument, go to this blog post from November 2019.