Sunday, 15 April 2018

Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Cantatas

I have over 30 Bach cantatas in the series conducted by Masaaki Suzuki with his Bach Collegium Japan. Mr Suzuki is not a director with a big ego. Tempi are uncontroversial. The small choir sounds (to me) just the right size for Bach's many choral passages and is, in any case, preferable to the one-per-part brigade. The instrumental band plays well, and is expertly balanced. The recordings, over several decades now, are either satisfactory, or excellent. The soloists are usually from a small pool of German, Flemish, British and Dutch. Stalwarts over the years have been Peter Kooij (bass), Gerd Türk (tenor), Hanna Blazikova (soprano), Robin Blaze (counter-tenor), and Carolyn Sampson (soprano). The Japanese solo singers in the earliest recordings were later abandoned.

Inevitably, a few cantatas are routine (but even routine Bach is always well worth listening to). Many give evidence of special care, no doubt for special occasions. There are many jewels such as BWV 21 “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis”. Whenever I want to listen to something, but cannot decide what, I know I'll be happy with a couple of Bach cantatas. For the Suzuki set, all praise also to the Swedish BIS company, that has kept the faith with Suzuki and Bach over many decades (unlike DG that chickened out of the John Eliot Gardiner series, presumably, as the Americans would say, because the recordings “did not make the numbers”). Bach would have said: “There are more important things than numbers, where my music is concerned”.

No criticisms? Well, I am not keen on counter-tenors. I like my sopranos, altos and contraltos to be women, just as I like my tenors, baritones and basses to be men. Mr Suzuki and I disagree on this. On the face of it, Kobe in western Japan is an unlikely source for top-notch Bach. All praise to Masaaki Suzuki for enriching our access to well-performed Bach cantatas. These 30 or so cantatas are ones I shall always keep to hand, counter-tenors notwithstanding. I seem to have around 50 Bach cantatas directed by Philippe Herreweghe, so that will be a new report sometime in the future.

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