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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750):
‘Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens’, BWV 148
‘Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlosen’, BWV 48
‘Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim’, BWV 89
‘Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben’, BWV 109
Midori Suzuki (sop); Robin Blaze (alto); Gerd Turk (ten); Chiyuki Urano (bass)
Bach Collegium Japan directed by Masaaki Suzuki
Recorded in the chapel of Kobe Shoin Women’s University, Japan 22 – 25 February, 2000
BIS CD-1081 [66.04]

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This is Volume 14 of Masaaki Suzuki’s ongoing Bach cantata cycle and it brings together four cantatas from the 1723 Leipzig cycle. Probably because I already own an indecently large number of CDs of Bach cantatas I have not previously investigated the releases in this cycle. However, I have read many approving reviews elsewhere of earlier releases. Having heard this disc I can understand why reviewers have generally been enthusiastic.

The whole disc is characterized by lively, stylistically aware performances by all concerned. The instrumental accompaniment is consistently excellent, with some wonderful obbligato playing, and the choir sings clearly and with a good, well-focused tone. Among the soloists, Robin Blaze and Gerd Turk stand out in particular and it is good that they have the most to do in these cantatas. Masaaki Suzuki has clearly thought deeply about the music (as is clear from the notes he provides about the solution to various textural issues) and he directs with a real feel for the music.

The cantatas are all for Sundays after Trinity, respectively the 17th Sunday (BWV 148); the 19th Sunday (BWV 48); the 22nd Sunday (BWV 89): and the 21st Sunday (BWV 109). Apart from anything else, we can only marvel at the fact that the same man could produce four such fine and varied cantatas in, presumably, just six weeks.

The disc opens with BWV 148, a celebratory work as is emphasized by the inclusion of a trumpet in the orchestral scoring. A fine, confident opening chorus is followed by a florid tenor aria, which is fluently sung by Gerd Turk, admirably supported by a nimble, dancing violin obbligato. Robin Blaze is in equally fine form in the succeeding recitative and aria. In the latter he is partnered by the wonderfully plangent sound of two oboes and an oboe da caccia.

BWV 48, which the Leipzig congregation would have heard just two weeks later, is a very different piece. The gospel for the day tells the story of Christ healing a paralytic and the text of the cantata, to which Bach responds avidly, draws a parallel between illness and sin on the one hand, and healing and redemption on the other. The chorus projects the opening chorus of lamentation with an appropriate mixture of sadness and restraint. The structure of the cantata is a little unusual in that after a dramatic recitative (eloquently delivered by Robin Blaze) there follows not an aria but a chorale. Arias for alto and tenor then follow. Each is sung with conviction and agility and with a keen responsiveness to the text.

BWV 89 affords the first opportunity on the disc to hear the soprano and bass soloists. Both voices were new to me. To Chiyuki Urano falls the bass aria with which the work opens. His voice is a fairly light bass and I found it just a trifle bland. Well though he sings he doesn’t seem to me to command the expressive range of Robin Blaze in the recitative and aria that follow. The soprano, Midori Suzuki, also has a light voice. She sings with great clarity. Her brief aria contains one of Bach’s typical, irresistible oboe obbligati. Suzuki matches the oboist’s delicacy and gives a lovely, poised account of the aria and it’s a pity that the programme doesn’t allow us to hear much more of her than this.

To complete the programme we hear BWV 109. This, too, is a work designed for a Sunday when the gospel told of a miracle of healing. As presented here, the substantial opening chorus is unusual in that there are contrasting passages for the soloists and for the full choir. Masaaki Suzuki convincingly explains his reasons for this performing decision in the booklet. Gerd Turk sings the big tenor aria superbly. It is full of broken rhythms and harmonically difficult phrases. Just to sing the notes accurately is a challenge but to sing them with eloquence is a real achievement and is something which Turk manages effortlessly. By contrast, the alto aria "radiates peace and certainty" as the author of the notes puts it. Robin Blaze is just as fine as is Turk in meeting the demands of this music.

Four fine and varied cantatas, all very well served by Suzuki and his forces, who clearly have an intuitive understanding of Bach’s many-faceted music. The sound is very good and the notes are first class: informative and stimulating. Texts and translations are provided to complete one’s pleasure in a most distinguished release.

John Quinn

Visit the Bach Collegium Japan webpage for reviews of other releases in this series

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