As he approaches the home straight, Mazaaki Suzuki could be
forgiven for resting on his laurels. But no, this 47th
volume of his Bach Cantata Cycle is as good as any of its predecessors.
There are plenty of surprises here too; in fact Suzuki and Bach
make a good team. They are both endlessly inventive musicians,
but each has a real sensitivity to the necessary balance between
continuity and innovation in liturgical music.
'Schwingt freudig euch empor' BWV 36 is a large two-part Cantata
for the first Sunday of advent; curious that BIS should choose
to release the disc on 29 November, the day after the celebration
in question. It is a great piece and contains perhaps the finest
of Bach's many settings of the Luther choral 'Nun komm, der
Heiden Heiland', this one a duet for soprano and alto (counter-tenor).
The Cantata is an ambitious work on many levels, and poses a
number of tricky musical problems. The obbligato instruments
are a pair of oboe d'amore, instruments not known for their
soloistic potential. The principled stand by BIS against post-production
jiggery-pokery means that Suzuki has to find his own solutions
to the balance issues in the opening chorus, where his two alto
woodwind instruments are up against the full weight of the choir.
Fortunately, the players, Masamitsu San'nomiya and Yukari Maehashi,
both have a rich but focused tone that carries across almost
any ensemble. And anyway, Suzuki is clearly just as concerned
to project the sound of the continuo here. In general, the recording
quality on this disc is excellent, but no individual line is
ever exaggerated. The textures can sound a little flat when
listening to at mid or low volume. But turn it up a notch or
two and the whole thing comes to life.
The scale of 'Schwingt freudig' is demonstrated by the fact
that it involves all four of the soloists. They are a diverse
group, and none the worse for that. The 'Nun komm, der Heiden
Heiland' succeeds partly because of the contrast between soprano
Hana Blažíková and counter-tenor Robin Blaze. Blažíková has
a fairly operatic tone, with lots of colour and projection,
although thankfully only the bare minimum of vibrato. Blaze
has a more collegiate sound, surprisingly grounded for a counter-tenor,
but with plenty of energy and no problems at all with the top
Satoshi Mizukoshi is one of the very few Japanese vocal soloists
to have appeared on Suzuki's Bach Cantata cycle. Why so few?
Who knows, but I dearly hope it is not because the label thinks
Mark Padmore and co. move more units. Mizukoshi is great. He
has a very heady voice, but it is clear, precise and has an
even tone right across the range. Some may find his performances
here a little anonymous, but not me, I think this is exactly
the amount of personality a tenor needs for the baroque repertoire.
Mind, I understand he also specialises in the Evangelist roles
in Bach's Passions, so I hope he has a bit more charisma saved
up for those appearances.
Bass Peter Kooij has just one aria in the first Cantata, but
has more to do in the second 'Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll
erniedriget werden' BWV 47. I'll confess to having mixed feelings
about Kooij's recent contributions to this cycle; he's not a
young man, and by comparison with his earlier Bach Cantata appearances
under Herreweghe he can seem a little underpowered these days.
But then, he was always a soft-toned singer, so perhaps the
change is minimal. In fact his singing here is very good, and
his soft, round tone adds another dimension of contrast to the
line-up of soloists. There are just one or two points though,
where the support he gives to longer, lower notes highlights
a lack of similar stability in the higher passage work.
The Cantata BWV 47 is for the 17th Sunday after Trinity,
so (unusually for this cycle) we are jumping around the liturgical
calendar on this album. However, all the Cantatas are from the
same year, 1726, and there is a certain continuity of style.
However, both the second and third Cantatas on the disc are
of a more modest, or at least standard, scale in comparison
with 'Swingt freudig'. So the contribution of the choir gradually
reduces as the disc goes on, which is a shame because they are
great, precise as ever and producing a real range of timbres
'Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende' BWV 27 takes us back a week,
to the 16th Sunday after Trinity. It is the shortest
Cantata here and also the most sombre. The orchestration includes
an oboe, an oboe da caccia and a horn, though we don't hear
much from him. The textures are quite compacted around the middle
register, but as before, just turning the dial up a notch or
two brings all the clarity the music needs. The third movement
of the Cantata is a counter-tenor aria 'Willkommen! will ich
sagen' and it's a real tough sing. The voice is above the obbligato
da caccia almost throughout and most of his phrases are long,
loud and high. Once or twice you can hear Robin Blaze struggling
at the ends of phrases, but on the whole it is a heroic effort.
But just when he thought it was all over, what’s this? There
is a bonus track on the end of the disc which is the same movement
but with organ rather than harpsichord continuo. Suzuki explains
in his (as ever) comprehensive performance notes that there
is some ambiguity in the sources about which instrument to use,
so he has decided to record it twice. As it happens, the results
bear out the decision; the continuo part is in fast quavers
throughout, so playing it on a sustaining rather than a percussive
instrument creates a completely different atmosphere. But poor
old Robin Blaze! Actually, his second performance of the aria
is better, partly due, I suspect, to the reduced competition
from the instrumental ensemble.
So, another fine instalment from Suzuki and his team. I'd say
this disc is a must for Bach fans, and for anybody interested
in what high end audio can do for the baroque repertoire. And
just one last mention for that 'Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland'
setting – wonderful, wonderful music presented by performers
at the top of their game and recorded in the best audio that
modern technology has to offer. If you're in two minds about
this disc, that one track should be the decider.
Cantatas on BIS