Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas Vol. 45: Cantatas from Leipzig 1726
Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot, BWV 39 [20:20]
Es wartet alles auf dich, BWV 187 [20:04]
Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott, BWV 129 [17:28]
Sinfonia in D major for violin and orchestra,
(c.1743/46) [6:28]
Robin Blaze (counter-tenor); Yukari Nonoshita (soprano); Peter Kooij (bass);
Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki (harpsichord)
rec. February 2009, Kobe Shoin Women’s University Chapel, Japan. DDD
BIS-SACD-1801 [65:42]

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 Produktion.

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 Brot (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 (To 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 (But 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 (Highest, that 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 line.

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 (These 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 (O Lord, 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, (Praised 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 der Herr (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 (Praise be 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 (Praised 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 Herr (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 we now).

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.

Michael Cookson