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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Easter Oratorio: "Kommt, eilet und laufet" BWV 249 (1749) [41.45]
Ascension Oratorio, "Lobet Gott in Seinem Reichen" BWV 11 (1735) [27.37]
Yukari Noonoshita, (soprano); Patrick van Goethem, (counter-tenor); Jan Kobow, (tenor); Chiyuki Urano, (bass)
Liliko Maeda, (transverse flute); Masamitsu San’nomiya, (oboe d’amore); Hidemi Suzuki, (cello); Naoya Otsuka (harpsichord); Naoko Imai, (organ).
Bach Collegium Musicum Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
rec. Kobe Shoin Women’s University Chapel, Japan, May 2004. dSd
Notes in English, Deutsch, and Français. English translations of the German texts.
CD tracks 2.0 stereo; SACD tracks 2.0 stereo and 5.0 surround.
BIS SACD 1561 [70.28]

Comparison Recordings:

BWV 249, 11 Helmut Rilling, Augér, [ADD] Hänssler Bach Edition 077
BWV 249, 11 Helmut Rilling, Augér, [ADD] Musical Heritage Society 5160954 [North America Only]
BWV 249, Prohaska, Rössl-Majdan, Berry, Equiluz; Wobisch, tr.; Rapf, keybs; [ADD] Bach Guild OVC 2542
BWV 249 and 243 Eugene Ormandy/Leonard Bernstein [ADD] Sony SBK 60261

If I had any lingering reservations about Japanese performing Bach, they were completely swept away by my hearing and watching their DVD performance of the St. John Passion, certainly the best I’ve ever encountered.

This BWV 249 is as close to perfect a Bach recording as I’ve ever heard. The performance is full of life, full of Baroque spirit while being strict to the letter of authentic practice. The horns have just the right amount of grit, the strings just bouncy enough. Balances side to side and front to back are perfect. Balance between instruments, chorus and soloists is perfect. The soloists are exceptional, especially the counter-tenor Patrick van Goethem. Those who think Berlioz invented orchestration should ponder the amazing sound Bach gets with flutes and strings in the accompaniment to "Sanfte soll, Mein Todeskummer...", clearly projecting the mood of a Spring day with the murmur of birdsong and a gentle zephyr rustling the tree leaves.*

Helmut Rilling plays the same music on his disk. Rilling was the first to do what Suzuki is doing now, that is, recording the complete cantatas, but Rilling’s soloists are more operatic in style, and some may prefer this. Also, while keeping a strict overall Baroque rhythmic pulse, Rilling makes very subtle adjustments to the tempo of the accompaniment to good dramatic effect. By comparison, Suzuki is perfectly precise and a little cool in style, yet there is no lack of feeling.

I listened to this recording on bud earphones with my portable player, on my computer speakers, and in five channel sound with my big system. Every way the sound of the disk is outstanding. If forced to make a negative comment, I would wonder why there is so little information in the rear channels, just hall ambience, about what a good generic four channel decoder would provide. Why bother with four or five channel recording if all you’re going to do is add ambience? Why not use the extra channels to move the listener closer to the performers? I would like to hear this music the way Bach heard it, seated at the harpsichord with the performers forming a 270° panorama around him. Bach never heard his music as on this recording, from 20 meters away in the tenth row of seating. The conductor Suzuki isn’t listening to this music that way either, at least not until the playback sessions with the engineers. What is authentic?

In any discussion of this music we must mention the Eugene Ormandy recording with the whole Philadelphia Orchestra and a stellar group of soloists. Ormandy shows us that his understanding of baroque style was second to none and he makes his huge group of players move with dazzling lightness and accuracy to remain within his brisk tempi. The aria "Saget mir geschwinde" with Maureen Forrester and Murray Panitz as flute soloist has never been as beautifully and affectingly sung. Also on this disk, we move from the generally under-rated Eugene Ormandy to the frequently over-rated Leonard Bernstein, but here Bernstein, with the entire New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Schola Cantorum, gives us a performance of Bach’s Magnificat fully equal to the highest of his reputation. The energy and commitment of instrumentalists, choristers, and engineers are breathtaking and the musicianship is exemplary, but it is mainly the performance by the amazing Russell Oberlin singing the alto part that is the indispensable, irreplaceable document. Mr. Oberlin, having recorded almost his entire repertoire once (but never Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, which, fortunately, I saw him sing in Los Angeles), decided he liked teaching more than concertizing and abruptly retired at the peak of his acclaim, leaving the rest of us to labor in search of disks which become more and more rare. We are fortunate that Sony has released this disk on CD in its super bargain ‘Essential Classics’ series, and I urge you, no matter how many recordings of this music you have, to buy it quickly before it disappears.

The venerable Prohaska recording will still be cherished by some as the finest version ever done as well as the very first. The singers are Vienna Opera stars and their German declamation is fluent and overwhelmingly immediate; I think native German speakers will prefer this version above all others in the same way that English speakers cherish the great Bach Guild Purcell recordings of the 1960s.** Hilde Rössl-Majdan yields very little to Maureen Forreser in her urgent and committed performance of "Saget mir, geschwinde..." Prohaska’s Viennese lilt to Bach’s rhythms, especially the three-quarter time, has about it an undefinable exquisiteness making Suzuki sound mechanical by comparison, but only in comparison. The sweet 1951 recording shows the typical intermodulation distortion ravages of analogue low headroom recording (digital processing should be able to remove that someday!). On this disk the companion is the greatest studio recording ever made of the Cantata #4 (The greatest live performance broadcast I ever heard was with Musica Sacra from New York, but more of that on another day) saying quite a lot for this often recorded work.

So, I’ve sold you on three recordings of this work which as a collector you must have; but if you buy only one recording, buy the Suzuki.

*While listening to this music it suddenly occurred to me that Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #6 is a tone poem depicting a German tavern. We begin with the murmur of — mostly masculine — conversation, then a small group has a very emotional discussion, then somebody gets up to dance and others join in. See what you think. I don’t mean to suggest that the work has to have such a scenario, but I am saying that I don’t think it is possible for a poet to avoid such images appearing subliminally in his work. I think Bach has such ideas in mind more than people have been willing to consider. Nobody denies all the religious images, why not non-religious ones as well?

** Purcell sung with a French accent is like single malt Scotch whiskey with ice cubes in it. Never mind that at the first performances some of the singers may have had French accents!

Paul Shoemaker

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


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