For an artist as remarkably gifted as countertenor David Daniels, his recording output has been miserably paltry as this is his first solo recital effort since 2004's beautiful repertoire of French art songs on Berlioz: Les Nuits d'Été. Even as new performers proliferate in his decreasingly rarefied voice range, Daniels remains more than a pioneer in expanding the boundaries of his voice type. He brings immense dramatic skill and vocal dexterity to almost everything he sings, and at 42, he has produced a burnished quality to his delivery that is quite unlike any other countertenor. I'm sure the inevitable maturity in his approach may frustrate purists who wish he would regain his boyish coloratura technique. Nevertheless, the sure footing he displays with the impeccably chosen selection of Bach's cantatas showcases one of the finest, most enduring voices in the classical world.
Daniels starts the program with two key sections of Bach's famous setting for the Latin Mass, the Mass in B minor (BWV 232), which was assembled just before the composer's death but was primarily made up mostly of earlier pieces. The first is the quietly majestic "Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris", an aria for alto voice with oboe d'amore obbligato. It shows off the genuine beauty in Daniels' delivery without calling undue attention to himself. The second is the more mournful "Agnus Dei", another alto aria, this one in G minor with violin obbligato. It was derived from a lost wedding cantata circa 1725, a surprising source since the tone here is more funereal. One of Bach's grander choral-orchestral works, St. John Passion (BWV 245) allows Daniels to traverse his lower range with fluidity on "Von den Stricken", an aria describing when Jesus is arrested. The singer, however, really shines on the climactic "Es ist vollbracht" where he shifts from forlorn to defiant and back again with lightning-quick precision, accompanied all the while by the viola de gamba.
Like St. John Passion, St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) was written for Good Friday vespers services, but it represents a more lyrically robust work. "Du lieber Heiland du...Buß and Reu" establishes the mercurial mood of the Passion with a gently scolding recitative followed by a poignant aria. Easily the most familiar piece here is "Erbarme dich" which Daniels sings with breathtaking beauty as an ethereal prayer on Peter's repentance. There is an almost romantic quality to his phrasing that contrasts dramatically with the implied violence in the next aria, "Erbarm es Gott!", as Jesus is being tortured. You can really sense the return to faith expressed in "Können Tränen". Compare these exceptional performances with those of contralto Stephanie Blythe stellar work on 2004's Handel & Bach Arias, and you realize the broad dramatic range to be mined from these alto solos.
The last three cantatas on the recording reflect more complex arrangements that really draw out Daniels' masterful interpretative skills. Nearly seventeen minutes long, "Ich Habe Genug" (BWV 82a) is a wondrous lament that amounts to a religious awakening emboldened with the idea of dying for Christ. The fuller quality in the arrangement of "Vergnügte Ruh, Beliebte Seelenlust" (BWV 170) produces a hymn-like paean to the contentment found in the soul of someone completely dedicated to Christ. The shortest of the cantatas, "Was Mir Behagt, Ist Nur Die Muntre Jagd" (BMV 208), speaks to the beauty of the land with the help of a pair of gentle voice flutes that add to the pastoral quality of the piece. Daniels' warm, round tones are perfectly accompanied by longtime collaborator Harry Bicket who leads the vastly talented period-instrument ensemble of the English Concert. Strongly recommended.