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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas Volume 29: Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder BWV135 [14:07]; Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein BWV2 [17:04]; Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid BWV3 [22:14]; Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir BWV38 [16:53]
Dorothee Mields (soprano), Pascal Bertin (counter-tenor), Gerd Türk (tenor), Peter Kooij (bass), Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
rec. Kobe Shoin Womenís University Chapel, 25-29 June 2004
BIS BIS-SACD-1461 [71:39]
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For those like myself who have been collecting this series since it began in 1995, this review is preaching to the converted. For those who havenít sampled the glories as yet, where have you been?

For those who have been on the space shuttle or on an Antarctic base for the last ten years, let me give you some background to what might seem an unlikely source of great Bach performances.

Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan are based in the city of Kobe, and according to the booklet notes aim to "introduce Japanese audiences to period instrument performance of great works of the baroque period". The orchestra features only three first violins, three second violins and two violas with a five-piece continuo. The choir has twelve members, three per part, including the soloists.

If you have already a considerable number of Bach cantatas from the other performers who have assayed this pinnacle of Baroque choral music, the question would be: "Why start buying a new series of recordings?" The answer, for this reviewer, is "these are the best available".

Somehow, Masaaki Suzuki has found a way to produce a rich and strong tone from the period instruments and small group of performers that other "authentic" performers have not. My impression of Harnoncourt, Koopman and others is often of a thin and aggressive sound. I donít hear that in these Japanese performances. Listen to the introduction to the bass aria in BWV135 (Tr. 5) as an illustration.

The other hallmark of many "authentic" performances is overly fast tempos, which were a reaction against the turgidity which characterised Baroque music as it was performed in the first half of the 20th century. Suzuki doesnít race through the movements, but maintains a strong sense of forward progression; nor does he fall into the "four-square rhythm" trap of some. All in all, there is a delightful - can I say "heavenly" ? - sense of air around the music.

The four works on this CD form part of the chorale cantata cycle that Bach wrote in his second year of service at Leipzig, dating from 1724 and 1725. This gave a common structure to the cycle, whereby the first and last strophes of the hymns were used unchanged in the chorales that open and close the works and the inner strophes revised for the arias and recitatives. These four are unusual in that they call for augmentation of the orchestra by cornett and/or trombone (a quartet of trombones in BWV2 and BWV38). The colours that these instruments add give the four works an archaic feel and a more sombre atmosphere than some of the better-known cantatas such as BWV80 and BWV147.

Suzuki has employed a range of soloists across his recordings, and the soprano in this volume, Dorothee Mields makes her debut in the series. Her solo duties are limited to a duet aria in BWV3, and a recitative and terzetto aria in BWV38. Her clear and light voice is well suited to this music. The counter-tenor, Pascal Bertin, has appeared once before in the series, and is a name to watch out for. His voice is rich and sweet, and has nothing of the "strangled" tone that some counter tenors seem to have. Gerd Türk (tenor) and Peter Kooij (bass) are long-standing members of the performing team and do their usual sterling work.

BIS, whose ongoing commitment to this series and other Bach works from the same performers is to be commended, has taken the decision to release all future CDs as hybrid SACDs, I canít comment on the sound quality from the SA version, but the conventional stereo is the usual BIS quality, though on occasions, there is a little sibilance at the end of phrases, which might suggest the soloists have been too closely miked; a.minor quibble.

One other comment is on the case: the booklet slips under clip-holders on the left and right of the cover, rather than sliding under ones top and bottom. Iím sure that all reading this review will have cursed numerous times when attempting to remove or replace thick booklets (i.e. those for choral works with the lyrics included) from the conventional case, shredding the pages in the process. This is a far better system, but why did it take someone so long to figure it out?

This release further enhances the reputation of the series as one of the glories of the CD era.

David J Barker

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


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