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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Cantatas Volume 52
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV140 [26:09]
Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt, BWV112 [12:59]
Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir, BWV29 [23:27]
Hana Blažíková (soprano); Robin Blaze (counter-tenor); Gerd Türk (tenor); Peter Kooij (bass); Bach Collegium, Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
rec. September 2011, Kobe Shoin Women's University Chapel, Japan. DDD
BIS BIS-SACD-1981 [63:38]

Masaaki Suzuki's cycle of Bach cantatas with the Bach Collegium, Japan, is one of several complete or nearly complete such undertakings currently available on (SA)CD. The two most prominent and most recent cycles which have already been completed are those by Ton Koopman on Challenge and John Eliot Gardiner on his own SDG label. It's with these that Suzuki's recordings must be compared.
 
SDG was formed when Deutsche Grammophon pulled out of the conductor's Bach project. Admittedly it was an ambitious - but in the event highly successful - undertaking to perform all of Bach's extant sacred cantatas. It's estimated that this represents barely 40% of those actually written. To add to the intricacy they were to be performed on the Sundays for which they were originally liturgically intended. As for the sessions, they were to be in various different locations in Europe and North America. That project has done much to raise the profile of this glorious, profound, intensely beautiful and moving music. Suzuki's energy and enthusiasm have helped as well. The present release, towards the end of a cycle which has indeed been released mostly on SACD, is the 52nd of the sets which each contains only one CD. Those from Koopman and Gardiner have mostly offered two discs per volume.
 
Bach wrote several partial or complete cycles of church cantatas from as early as his appointment in 1707 at Mühlhausen onwards. His most prolific period was that in Leipzig from 1723, when the weekly pace of conception, composition, rehearsal and performance must have been as relentless as the resulting music is great.
 
Each cycle has a distinct feel. Koopman's is directed, focused, unspectacular, clear, undemonstrative, considered and very aware of the relationship which modern performers have with the composer and his likely musical practice. That said, this cycle does not use period instruments. Then again, neither does Gardiner's, which is steelier, emphasises polish and panache yet reaches all the right interpretative depths. This it achieves in no small part by constantly highlighting the richness of the varied contributions which his soloists make.
 
Suzuki's cycle seems to have been built more slowly; it has a gentler and less extrovert tenor. It's the only set to have been released on SACD (and FLAC) … it's on BIS, after all. Suzuki shares some of the soloists on this CD with the other cycles: Türk with Koopman's, Blaze with Gardiner's earlier series on Archiv and indeed Kooij with Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi. These are experienced, persuasive and confident singers obviously happy in their approaches.
 
Suzuki's conception of the cantatas places less emphasis on the architecture, on the longer and broader threads both with Bach's other music and the literary sources on which the cantatas draw, than either Koopman's or Gardiner's does. Each cantata, each movement even, is approached somewhat empirically. For Suzuki and his forces - playing period instruments - little is taken for granted. Bach's structures have been slowly and meticulously rebuilt. The performances don't 'coast' or get carried along with their own momentum. This tends to lead to a somewhat 'studied' sound, where exuberance and unfettered expression take second place.
 
Consequently, a criticism that has been levelled at the earlier CDs in this series was of a certain sterility; that Suzuki's results lacked verve and life. This is another way of saying, perhaps, that restraint, caution, deliberateness and delicacy are prized over emotion. Listen, for example, to the way in which the brass lead us with unflinching confidence but almost without conviction into BWV29, Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir. What might be ebullient and clamorous, gushing with gratitude almost, and exultant, verges on the mechanical. The 6/8 rhythm is a cue for extroversion and an emotional lack of reserve: gratitude can be at its strongest when unrestrainedly unilateral.
 
Yet, for all the BCJ's technical fluency, the choir's genuinely felt enunciation and the male voice soloists' commitment, there is something static in the delivery. Jubilation and praise are vital to this expression of gratitude … both the bass recitative [tr.16] and the closing chorale [tr.20] focus on the punchy Lob (Praise!) The tenor aria [tr.15] and alto arioso [tr.19] revolve around an "Alleluia". Although perfunctory is the wrong expression, as is 'matter-of-fact', these performers have too much in reserve: we understand the reasons for the joy at Bach's God's love because the performers tell us, not because it's self-evident.
 
Many listeners will be glad of the evenness and the consistency of this way of conceiving the music. That said, it can be argued that the lack of passion, the reticence, the sense that the music is being pulled carefully from a container not allowed to tumble and spring out and about is at odds with the charged expressivity on which Baroque music - particularly these exuberant avowals of faith - was composed and played during Bach's lifetime.
 
One can have little against the soloists' tender, considered and studied deliveries. Hana Blažíková's voice is clean, penetrating and communicative… her 'Gedenk an uns mit deiner Liebe' [tr.17] from the same cantata, for instance, is clarity and distinction itself. Unfortunately it does lack - if not warmth - a full sense of having distilled, absorbed and internalised the essence of Bach's relationship with his inspiration.
 
It cannot be said that Suzuki and his musicians lack the necessary technical prowess to make the music work or that they are less than fully committed to the music, its ethos, excursions and introspections. Rather that a determination to examine each step they take as they take it leaves the music-making a little lifeless or routine. These are far from being poor performances but they do lack an inner light which both Koopman's and Gardiner's sets radiate at almost all times.
 
The acoustic is warm, draws no attention to itself; and the balance of solo singers, solo instrumentalists and ensemble is excellent. These fully support the emotional and confessional thrust and direction of the music as conceived by Bach. The booklet that comes with this volume is informative and contains full texts in German and English. Background on the cantatas is also provided alongside details of the occasions for and on which they were written. Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV140), for example, was intended for the 27th Sunday after Trinity. That's an occasion which is only observed if Easter falls before March 27th, something that only happened twice during Bach's time at Leipzig. There are also brief biographies and written sketches of the performers.
 
If you've been collecting the Suzuki/BIS cycle, you won't want to hesitate here. If you know the others or indeed those by Helmuth Rilling on Hänssler, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt on Teldec, or by Pieter Jan Leusink on Brilliant Classics for that matter, then this is as good a place to sample Suzuki's approach as any.
 
Mark Sealey
 
Review index: Bach cantatas on BIS

Masterwork Index: Bach cantatas


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