The words, 'Final CD of the series' on the cellophane wrapping of this single CD say it all. This cycle from Bach Collegium Japan ('BCJ') under Masaaki Suzuki began in 1995 and this is volume 55.
We listeners have feelings as mixed as those of Suzuki: he too wishes someone would discover a pile of previously unknown cantatas. We too are aware of the immensity of approaching this amazing corpus and of its many unpredictable aspects. Suzuki sets out in the liner-notes, his thoughts in an unself-indulgent, though aptly informative description of this last step in the journey. He refers to the innate and invincible quality, depth and affirmative nature of the cantatas and their capacity to sustain anyone involved.
The BCJ has had to examine in great detail every aspect of every note of every movement of every cantata. This in itself has meant a very special collaborative engagement with the music. It shows in these three performances of music from Bach's time in Leipzig in the 1730s and 1740s - some of the last cantatas he wrote.
There is a confidence, a sureness and deft lightness of touch in this music-making. Listen to the way the notes almost pour from bass, Peter Kooij, in BWV's Gelobet sei Gott
aria [tr.9], for instance. It's a perfect blend of exaltation and a sense that advocating such praise is itself fully justified.
That's typical of the vocal, choral, solo and ensemble instrumental playing throughout. Lines are articulated with a clarity that is not mundane yet it moves the musical arguments forward just as the earnest Thomaskantor would have insisted.
Although Suzuki alludes in the aforementioned essay to his own development over the 18 years which this cycle has taken to complete, this much is obvious from the first few bars of the wonderful Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele
BWV 69. This not only in the same gentle progression away from tentativeness which Koopman - though not Gardiner - exhibits in his series. The same sense of exuberance, tempered with wonder yet precise music-making is a delight throughout. Listen to the rhythms and compulsion of Eilt ihr Stunden
BWV 30 [tr.16] too, for example. Control, measure and accuracy in phrasing - all inform the equally precise balance between longing and certainty in the validity of what's longed for.
One is also struck by the sense Suzuki has of each cantata's architecture, structure and form. Anticipation, reference and awareness of the tonality and instrumentation of what comes before and after informs the unfolding of each movement, each whole cantata's exposition. This surely comes close to what Bach intended.
Suzuki's conception is not so declamatory - still less emotionally-charged - as that of Gardiner, whose cycle on SDG is also complete and must be considered as a good comparison. Suzuki's on BIS is less studied and seems more effortless than the other contender for your attention and money - these are extensive projects - by Ton Koopman and his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir on Challenge. Each of the latter took fewer physical volumes and less time. Each has its strengths; choosing between them is not easy.
If there is a small criticism, it must be that at times the balance between chorus and ensemble very slightly eclipses the words - the closing chorus of Freue dich
[tr.18] is a good example. It's not a glaring disadvantage: the text is so clear the majority of the time and invariably from the soloists.
The acoustic - that of the Kobe Shoin Women's University Chapel, Japan, where all the recordings have been made - is clean and responsive. It's less bright than many of Gardiner's locations; yet broader than Koopman's. Like those of most of Suzuki's cycle, this final volume is released by BIS on SACD.
The liner-notes are full, informative and contain the full texts in German and English as well as useful brief biographies of the soloists.
Previous review: David Barker
Masterwork Index: Bach cantatas
Series review index: Bach Collegium Japan on BIS