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Bach Cantatas Volume 54 - Suzuki

Bach Collegium Japan records volume 54 of their Bach Cantata Series for BIS.

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BWV 197 This is a wedding cantata, which as we might gather from the character of the music, was for a significant pair of patrons. It's presented in two parts. The first opens with a festive chorus, which sets the mood well for a equally festive occasion. The next major piece is an alto aria, Schlafert allen Sorgenkummer. I felt this one might have gone just a tad too slowly for me, with the soloist coming across just a tad too veiled for my taste. Mr. Blaze has been one of Suzuki's all-stars in his cantata series, but for me Blaze doesn't hold his own against the instruments. When the continuo changes to harpsichord, things improve (especially the pulse), but Blaze is still in the weeds a bit against the orchestra's winds.

Part 2 opens with a bass aria. The opening texture is very interesting, with bassoon in the bass, oboes, and the use of low tessitura in the strings. The soprano gets an aria next, accompanied with solo violin. Both sections end with a chorales that Suzuki has underpinned with harpsichord in the continuo. The second one is especially nice, So wandelt froh auf Gottes Wegen.

Following this piece, a fragment, BWV 197a is presented, the last four numbers of a 7-section work. Here, for me, the alto aria is far more strong than in BWV 197.

BWV 14 This work was first performed in January, 1735. One of the beliefs as to why there are fewer cantatas in Bach's later period is that he only wrote new cantatas for special occasions, as he was re-using previously wrought material, in addition to performing the works by others. The alternative, of course, is that his later work could have been lost. No doubt, the truth is probably a combination of both theories.

The opening chorus is "thick" with instruments doubling the voices, helping keep Bach's counterpoint clear. It gives context to the words, the concept of a flock of believers, together:

If God were not with us at this time, we would have had to lose heart since we are such a poor little flock…

The first aria features obbligato trumpet with a soprano soloist. The trumpet part sounds difficult, but for the most part it's well-played here, set back in its playing to capture some of the character of the BCJ's performing space. The markings in the score for this instrument, and a change in key for it, led BCJ to switch to a trumpet for this solo, instead of the horn used in the outer movements.

The minor-mode aria for bass is especially nice, with two oboes opening before the singing starts. It's well-wrought stuff. The closing chorus, too, is a little otherworldly to my ears. I found the clarity of the diction, however, a little hard to capture without following along with the booklet.

BWV 100 This piece was written for the early 1730s and continued to be used and updated by Bach for at least 10 years. This was the only cantata familiar to me when opening Suzuki's penultimate volume of Bach cantatas. It's no surprise that Bach reused this work multiple times; its' well-written, opening with a rather festive flair, complete with horns and timpani.

I'm a sucker for a nice walking bass, and Bach treats us to a duet next with a walking bass. That's got to be fun to sing, I bet.

Solo flute takes over next, in the first solo aria with soprano. Hana Blazikova is a good singer, who uses a little vibrato, but still in good (baroque) taste.

The bass aria seems like it could be a number with rollicking good fun, but Suzuki and Peter Kooij don't over indulge the character to that degree. The words fit the character they have chosen, but this piece could just have easily been used to sing about drinking a good, hearty beer or to sell the virtues of good, strong coffee.

The next aria features the lower-pitched oboe d'amore with alto. The dialogue between the two soloists is nice, showing off, I think, the great sound quality that's been used to capture many of BCJ's releases over the past 5 years.

So, BWV 100 is kind of unique in supplying us with 4 arias, plus an opening chorus and closing chorale, without any recitative.

I personally need more time to study these pieces to increase my appreciation for what Bach's doing with the text. I've linked here each cantata to its page on the J. S. Bach Cantata website. I find their archived discussions, reviews, and links to recordings to be an invaluable resource to better appreciating Bach's cantatas. As a collector who has been purposely mixing releases by Suzuki, Koopman, and Gardiner, I can say this release sounds great on a technical level. There was the one track where I take issue with the balance of the alto in his aria; I really need to compare this with another recording to understand if it's a compositional concern, a recording concern (better miking), or an interpretive/performance concern. That said, there are a few special aria tracks I know I'll play over and over.

In all, I find Suzuki to be a bit more conservative an interpreter than Gardiner. That said, I also find his interpretations to be more uniformly strong. Which speaks, I think, to the value of having multiple interpretations. Nevertheless, Volume 54 is another well-done installment in Bach Collegium Japan's effort to record all of Bach's cantatas.

Schiff on Bach (on piano)

Spaces by Nils Frahm