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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1759)
Gloria in Excelsis Deo
Cantata: Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele, BWV 69 [19:05]*
Cantata: Freue dich, erlöste Schar, BWV 30 [34:17]*
Cantata: Gloria in excelsis Deo, BWV 191 [14:19]*
Mass in B minor: Dona nobis pacem BWV 232 [3:38]
Hana Blažíková (soprano) Robin Blaze (counter-tenor)
Gerd Türk (tenor) Peter Kooij (bass)
Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
[no timings given, above times from BIS SACD 2031* and BIS SACD 1701/2]
rec.* Kobe Shoin Women's University Chapel, Kobe, Japan, 2013
Sound Format LPCM Stereo, LPCM 5.0 Surround; Picture Format 16:9, 1080i; All Regions: Subtitles English & Japanese, plus German/Latin for performances: Booklet English only
Extra: interviews with performers, technicians and others involved
BIS BIS2201 Blu-ray [93:00]

I may be wrong but I wonder if this is the first time that BIS has issued a Blu-ray video disc: this is the first one I’ve encountered from this source. Blu-ray hasn’t featured much, if at all, in their catalogue and that may well be because the format is felt to be irrelevant given the excellence of their SACD sound.

Unfortunately, and to my shame, I came rather late to the Suzuki cycle of the Bach sacred cantatas; by the time I truly took note of it, I was committed to the Gardiner cycle. I don’t regret my focus on Gardiner except in so far as I missed most of the Suzuki recordings. The handful of Suzuki performances that I did obtain and the comments of my colleagues who reviewed the various issues made it clear to me that this was a very distinguished series of Bach recordings. But there are only so many recordings one can manage to hear.

These three cantata featured in the final volume – Vol 55 – of Masaaki Suzuki’s cycle of the Bach sacred cantatas on CD/SACD (review ~ review). Here we see and hear Suzuki lead ‘as live’ performances. To the contents of that disc is appended the ‘Dona nobis Pacem’ from the B minor Mass; that’s a new performance and not, I’m certain, excerpted from Suzuki’s 2007 SACD of the complete Mass (review).

The package contains filmed comments about the project from Masaaki Suzuki himself – footage shot on 21 February, 2013, the very last day of the 18-year recording project – and from instrumentalists and singers from Bach Collegium Japan (BCJ). Suzuki’s wife, Tamaki, an alto in BCJ, recalls that BWV 30 furnished the recessional music at their wedding – the opening or closing movement I suspect: the processional was music from BWV 140. (In passing, I wondered who took Masaaki Suzuki’s conducting role on that occasion.) She says she’s unsurprised he left BWV 30 as the last cantata to be recorded. Fittingly, the four vocal soloists who feature here have been mainstays of the project: Robin Blaze remarks that his 15-year involvement encompasses nearly two-thirds of his adult singing life; Gerd Türk’s first participation came as early as Volume 2 in the series.

The performances are superb examples of the BCJ’s art. BWV 69 is one of the cantatas that Bach composed for the Leipzig city council elections. He wrote it in 1748 or, rather, Alfred Dürr tells us, he adapted a cantata, BWV 69a which he had written for Trinity Sunday 1723. Suzuki and his team achieve excellent precision, vigour and clarity in the opening chorus, which includes three jubilant trumpet parts. Robin Blaze delivers his alto aria with lightness of touch – and he’s matched in this by the obbligato violinist and oboist. The bass aria is not Bach’s most interesting but Peter Kooij sings it well. Overall, this is a very fine performance, though I agree with my colleague David Barker’s assessment that this is not one of the plums among Bach’s cantatas.

BWV 30 is a much more interesting – and substantial – piece. It’s a cantata in two parts, composed for the feast of St. John the Baptist. It’s a paraphrase of a 1737 secular cantata and was probably adapted for the feast day the following year. The opening chorus is absolutely splendid – ‘Rejoice, redeemed host, / Rejoice in Zion’s blessings!’ Happily, Bach allows us to hear this jubilant music a second time for he reprises it – to different words – as the closing chorus. In between Kooij gives a distinguished performance of his first aria, a technically challenging piece, and is equally successful in his Part II aria. The accompaniment to the alto aria is quite unusual: the first violins play with the bow while all other strings play pizzicato. Superimposed on this is a delectable flute part (the excellent Kiyomi Suga). The overall effect is a delightfully light, tripping accompaniment which supports fine singing by Robin Blaze. This beguiling aria is paced to perfection by Suzuki. Hana Blažíková’s contributions are sung with bell-like clarity and, in her aria, no little agility. This fine cantata is given a performance worthy of it by the BCJ.
BWV 191 is a three-movement Christmas cantata, using music that will be familiar from the Gloria of the B minor Mass. As Alfred Dürr observes, it would have been highly unusual for a Latin text to be sung at the principal Leipzig service, though recent research suggests it may have been sung at a special Christmas Day service to celebrate the signing of a peace treaty in 1748. I wonder if the requirement to furnish, possibly at short notice, some additional music at such a busy time of the year may explain why Bach took the easy option of “raiding” the B minor Mass. Anyway, Suzuki’s performance is suitably joyful. The central movement is a duet for soprano and tenor in which Blažíková and Türk are ideal partners.

The disc concludes with a fine account of the last movement from the B Minor Mass. The music is evenly and nobly phrased. It’s the ideal way to round off this celebration of the monumental achievement by Suzuki and the BCJ.

Among those who contribute comments during the programme is Robert von Bahr of BIS. He frankly admits that when the cantata project was pitched to him he was very dubious. However, he took the trouble to go to Japan to hear Suzuki and his colleagues in action and realised that he could be on to something. Thank goodness, he was sufficiently thorough and curious to make that journey to the other side of the world. For 18 years (1995-2013) both Suzuki and BIS maintained full commitment to this project and the end result is a set of recordings that constitute a major contribution to the discography of Bach’s music and are likely so to do for many years.

The video and audio presentation are first rate. The camera work is unobtrusive and relevant throughout and the sound through my TV was as crisp and clear as the pictures. When I played the audio track of the disc through the Blu-ray player that is connected to my hi-fi system the sound quality was even more impressive. The documentation however, is a slight let down. The booklet contains a very short note about the project, authored by Suzuki, and there are also artist biographies. However, there is neither a track listing nor a word about the music itself. I suppose the lack of even brief musical notes is fair enough if the target market consists of those who have already invested in some or all of the discs and want to have a visual souvenir of the project. If, however, the intention is to entice neophyte purchasers into investment in the audio discs then I would have thought some comment on what they are hearing would have been helpful. BIS have missed a trick here, I think.

However, that’s the only caveat – and a minor one – about a film that serves as a fine and deserving tribute to one of the most remarkable recording projects of the last fifty years.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dave Billinge



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