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
[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.
Review index: Bach
cantatas on BIS
Masterwork Index: Bach