Johann Sebastian Bach wrote approaching 200 cantatas for liturgical
use almost always intended for a specific feast or function in
the Lutheran church calendar.
A number of complete (or virtually complete) cycles of Bach’s
surviving cantatas have already been recorded. Prior to the trend
for period instrument recordings eminent Bach specialist Karl
Richter tackled the sacred music of Bach over a three decades
until his untimely death in 1981, aged 51. Richter’s renowned
Bach series for Archiv Produktion, the early music label of Deutsche
Grammophon, was taken down in stereo over a twenty year period
from the late 1950s. With his Münich Bach Choir and Orchestra
it seems that Richter recorded seventy-six cantatas for Archiv
There have also been Bach cantata cycles from Helmuth Rilling
on Hänssler, Gustav Leonhardt and Nicholas Harnoncourt on
Teldec, Pieter-Jan Leusink on Brilliant Classics and Tom Koopman
for Erato and later the Antoine Marchand label. Of particular
note is the projected complete cycle from Sir John Eliot Gardiner
who recorded his Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 1999/2000 using period
instruments at performances in more than sixty European churches.
The Gardiner recordings were released in stages by Archiv Produktion
who pulled the plug part-way through. In 2005 Sir John formed
his own label Soli Deo Gloria to issue his remaining recordings.
There are now only a handful of recordings to be released in
2010 which should complete the series.
Early music specialist Philippe Herreweghe has made a splendid
collection of period instrument readings of Bach cantatas for
Harmonia Mundi. Commenced in 1987 by my reckoning Herreweghe
has chalked up around fifty sacred cantatas which have been issued
in clusters right up to the present day. The recordings were
conceived as an occasional series to commemorate various themes
or feasts of the Lutheran church year.
On the BIS label Masaaki Suzuki with his Bach Collegium Japan
commenced his complete Bach cantata cycle in 1995. Suzuki is
now on the home stretch having reached volume 45. This comprises
a collection of three church chorale cantatas from Leipzig in
1726 that require parts for alto, soprano and bass soloists.
Also included is the Sinfonia in D major for violin and orchestra.
For those who are not familiar with the Bach Collegium Japan,
it is an orchestra and choir founded in 1990 by their director
and keyboard player Masaaki Suzuki. The orchestra is renowned
as Japan’s leading period instrument players applying their
historically informed knowledge of sacred baroque music and specialising
in the work of J.S. Bach. The chosen venue for Suzuki’s
cycle of recordings has been the Shoin Women’s University
Chapel in Kobe, Japan.
The opening cantata on volume 45 is Brich dem Hungrigen dein
(It is not to deal thy bread to the hungry), BWV 39
was intended for the first Sunday after Trinity in 1726. The
two-part score employs soprano, alto and bass soloists and a
four-part choir with the instrumentation of pairs of recorders,
oboes and violins, a viola, basso continuo and organ.
In both the extended opening chorus and the brief closing chorale
the choir of the Bach Collegium Japan makes a glorious sound
and the movements are beautifully paced. Counter-tenor Robin
Blaze in the alto aria Seinem Schöpfer noch auf Erden
bear even shadowy semblance) displays smooth boyish tones. There
is splendid concerted accompaniment from the oboe and although
sounding rather recessed the solo violin also makes a fine contribution.
The movement Wohlzutun und mitzuteilen vergesset nicht
to do good and to communicate forget not) is an aria with the
bass voice conveying the words of Jesus. With his rich and clear
timbre soloist Peter Kooij is a persuasive interpreter and is
placed splendidly over the basso continuo line. Soloist Yukari
Nonoshita in Höchster, was ich habe
which I have) is a bright-toned soprano with a rather forceful
pitch that just avoids the wrong side of shrill. Here the recorder
is busily occupied throughout weaving in and out of the vocal
Es wartet alles auf dich
, (These wait all upon Thee),
BWV 187 is a chorale cantata for the seventh Sunday after Trinity
from 1726. In this two-part cantata the vocal soloists are the
soprano, alto and bass, a four-part choir with the instrumentation
of pairs of oboes and violins, a viola, basso continuo and organ.
High spirited, the opening chorus Es wartet alles auf dich
wait all upon thee) is notable for its well sprung rhythms and
prominent and bubbly oboe parts. This is one of the finest opening
movements to any Bach cantata that I know and the players and
singers are in impeccable form. Making short work of the considerable
technical challenges Robin Blaze superbly delivers his alto aria Du
Herr, du krönst allein das Jahr mit deinem Gut
you alone crown the year with your goodness). I enjoyed bass
Peter Kooij’s brisk and convincing portrayal of the aria Darum
sollt ihr nicht sorgen noch sagen
(Therefore take no thought,
saying). Yukari Nonoshita is inspiring throughout her aria Gott
versorget alles Leben
(God provides for every living thing)
with its expressive soprano line and prominent oboe figures.
The cantata concludes with a brief and rather routine chorale Gott
hat die Erde zugericht
(God has ordained the earth) which
is expertly sung, nonetheless.
The chorale cantata Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott
be the Lord, My God), BWV 129 was composed for Trinity Sunday
in 1726. Soprano, alto and bass soloists are joined by a four-part
choir with instrumentation of three trumpets, a transverse flute,
two oboes, oboe d’amore, two violins, viola, timpani, basso
continuo and organ.
Suzuki is bright and brisk in the opening chorus Gelobet sei
(Praised be the Lord) with the trumpet fanfares
and timpani providing a marked festive feel to the movement.
Kooij’s bass aria Gelobet sei der Herr
the Lord) is notable for the long held notes in the vocal line
positioned over a weighty basso continuo. Considerable vocal
display is required in the soprano aria Gelobet sei der Herr
be the Lord). Yukari Nonoshita espouses a pleading tone; her
line is smooth and her diction admirable. A highlight of the
disc is the bright and uplifting alto aria Gelobet sei der
(Praised be the Lord) with Robin Blaze displaying his
appealing and impeccable delivery. The inclusion of the prominent
oboe d’amore part adds to the interest. A sense of celebration
is imparted by the three trumpets and timpani in the short closing
movement chorale Dem wir das Heilig itzt
(To him for whom
Intended, it seems, for an unknown cantata Bach’s Sinfonia
in D major for violin and orchestra, BWV 1045 was composed around
1743/46. The surviving manuscript is a fragment in Bach’s
own handwriting ending suddenly at bar 150. Bach altered his
original instrumentation to comprise of three trumpets, a pair
of oboes, strings, timpani and basso continuo. The solo violin
part provides an atmosphere of intensity that contrasts with
the distinctly festive feel from the trumpets and timpani.
These are immaculate performances from Masaaki Suzuki’s
trio of well chosen soloists together with the tonal beauty and
precision of ensemble from his choir. The fluidity and intimacy
of the period instruments provide clear tones, eloquent and crisp
articulation with clear phrasing. I was particularly impressed
with Suzuki’s ability to convincingly balance the requirement
for expression with the reverential character of the text. It
is hard to fault the presentation of this BIS release which contains
an enjoyable and informative essay by Klaus Hofmann. In addition,
the German texts are provided in full with English translations;
a welcome contribution that should serve as an example to other
less generously minded record labels. Congratulations are in
order to recording producer Ingo Petry and sound engineer Andreas
Ruge. The sound quality of this hybrid SACD is outstanding, crystal
clear and well balanced.
Suzuki really is a master of his art directing impeccable vocal
and instrumental performances on this selection of three sacred
Bach cantatas from Leipzig in 1726.