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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas - Volume 37
Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, BWV169 (1726) [23:03]
Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV170 (1726) [23:11]
Geist und Seele wird verwirret, BWV35 (1726) [25:56]
Bekennen will ich seinen Namen, BWV200 (ca.1742) [4:04]
Robin Blaze (alto)
Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
rec. September 2006, Kobe Shoin Women’s University Chapel, Japan (BWV 35, 169, 200); August 2005, St Crucis Church, Erfurt, Germany (BWV 170)
BIS SACD1621 [77:21]

Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Cantata series is over the halfway mark, but if the 60 CD tally of other sets is anything to go by there is still a long way to go before we need to worry about cut-price boxes. Casual purchasers may be put off a little by the idea of a collection of solo cantatas, but this set contains some of the richest jewels of J.S. Bach’s sacred cantatas, and the performances are second to none.
Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, BWV169 in fact does have one final four-part vocal chorale, and purists will be interested to hear that in this case it is taken one voice to a part. These solo works further elude the arguments over the size of Bach’s original choir however, and so shall I. Robin Blaze has been a part of the team of soloists for this ongoing series from the start, and his pure tones, richly expressive and unencumbered by affectations or maddening mannerisms, make for a voice to which I can listen for a very long time indeed. BWV169 begins with a Sinfonia which will strike many listeners as familiar, as it was later arranged as part of the Harpsichord Concerto BWV1053.
Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV170 has what must be considered one of the most modern sounding movements of Bach’s cantatas; Wie jemmern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen. Extremely sparing, the organ plays a leading role, with the upper strings cut loose from an absent bass and continuo, painting brief, sketchy, minimal lines like a Paul Klee drawing, or a repeated fragment from something by Anton Webern. The magic of the entry of the subsequent recitative after over eight minutes of this psychological portrayal of suffering and lamentation is a real tingle, and the ‘happy ending’ aria Mir ekelt mehr zu leben is a joyous affirmation of Bach’s humanity in all of its complexity and, yes, arguably even in its occasionally lush banality.
Geist und Seele wird verwirret, BWV35 was presented to Bach’s Leipzig congregation six weeks after BWV170, and again has a leading role for the organist, in all cases here played admirably by Masaaki Suzuki himself. One of my reasons for an interest in this cantata is the comparison which can be made with another recent SACD recording, that with Sigiswald Kuijken on the Accent label. I certainly prefer the balance of the organ in the BIS recording, which remains firmly behind the rest of the ensemble, despite its solo character. Kuijken has his portativo wheeled to the front on the Accent recording, which works for the instrumental numbers, but gets in the way seriously when accompanying the voice. As far as voices go, Petra Noskaiová for Kuijken is very good, but a female alto always presents a different picture to that of a male one, and the tensions and expressive emphases come from a different place. As a question of taste, I come down on the side of Robin Blaze, if only for the sometimes almost choirboy purity in his voice – Noskaiová does have the edge when it comes to clarity when following the text. I also prefer Suzuki’s greater liveliness in the opening Concerto and the Sinfonia of the second part, and he shaves off around half a minute from Kuijken’s versions. Suzuki also seems to have more fun with the music. Take the wit you hear in the bouncy interpretation of Gott hat alles wohlgemacht on this new recording, and you soon find Suzuki makes Kuijken sound far too serious.
I had never heard Bekennen will ich seinen Namen, BWV200 before, and it is a little gem. Not in fact a cantata, it is a solo aria which seems to have lost its original context. It was discovered only in 1924 and published in 1935, and makes for a touching conclusion to this set.      
I have only one real criticism of this recording, and that is the tuning of the organ in parts of BWV 169. Have a listen to track 5, the aria Stirb in mir, and with the best will in the world I can only say that it is more than somewhat flat in relationship to the rest of the orchestra. This is a great shame, as this is one of the highlights of the entire cantata canon, let alone this disc. I know that we’re not talking about the kind of equal temperament which prevents us shoehorning something like a Steinway into any historically informed performance, but this is not what I mean. I’ve had other people listen to this track and they all agree, even my girlfriend, who is a fan of BonJovi and other heavy rock music. To anyone with any kind of relative pitch sensitivity it has to be something which jars, especially when everything else is so gorgeously produced.
The SACD recording is a rich cornucopia of spaciousness and transparency, well up to BIS’s usual high standards, and those of this cantata series. Most certainly recommended, but while they are still working on the set, perhaps I could put in for a re-take of the bits in BWV169 which, slowly but surely, made all of my teeth fall out one by one?
Dominy Clements
Bach Cantata series on BIS review page


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