Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 24 May 2013

Suzuki Bach Cantatas 53

Bach: Cantatas Vol. 53 - Leipzig 1730s–40s
In allen meinen Taten, BWV 97
Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 177
Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, BWV 9

Hana Blazíková, soprano
Robin Blaze, counter-tenor
Gerd Türk, tenor
Peter Kooij, Bass
Bach Collegium Japan
Masaaki Suzuki, cond

BIS SACD-1991 (67:37)
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Volume 53 of Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Cantata cycle has been released soon after the announcement that the 55th and final volume is now in the can and will be issued later this year. Suzuki has been recording the cantatas in chronological order, so rather than ending on a grand climax, the last volumes fill in the gaps, just as Bach did in the 1730s, with the odd cantata here and there for Sundays that had previously been omitted. The three works on this volume are all “chorale cantatas”, meaning that the text is based on a well-known hymn, with the texts of the inner verses adapted  to be adapted to be set as arias and recitatives. According to the liner note, by Klaus Hofmann, the adaptations had previously been carried out by Andres Stübel, former deputy headmaster of the Thomaskirche School. That’s only supposition, but it is supported by the fact that the sequence tailed off incomplete in 1725, soon after Stübel’s death. But in the early 1730s, Bach resolved to complete the sequence. In the cases of BWV 97 and 177, the lack of a sufficiently skilled librettist forced him to use the hymn texts unaltered.
From a musical point of view, these late cantatas are modest in their ambitions. There are none of the spectacular set pieces that help many works in the 1720s cycles to stand out. When Bach writes counterpoint here, it is often with all parts, both choral and orchestral, on an even footing, creating homogeneous textures. These even tend towards homophony in places, as the aging Bach begins to accept the prevailing gallant style. The benefit of this more modern approach is that the musical focus is often on long, flowing melodies, which add a decidedly concertante quality to many of the instrumental obbigatos.
In allen meinen Taten, BWV 97, opens with orchestral introduction. The first phrases here are slow, but the music soon picks up into a lively Allegro. But even then, Suzuki’s tempos are quite moderate, at least by period performance standards. That feeling continues throughout the album, and while the tempos are never slow, nor does anything ever feel rushed. As usual, Suzuki ensures the music has a strong sense of propulsion from the varied but always definite attacks given to individual notes, especially by the winds. The opening chorus of BWV 97 poses a challenge of balance, with complex counterpoint in the orchestra lying beneath the cantus firmus in the choir. The singers sound a little recessed here, as if the engineers are more interested in the orchestra. The final chorale of this cantata is similarly challenging, as Bach writes independent counterpoint in the orchestra to accompany the already dense choir. But here the balance is ideal, and Bach’s presumably intended effect of making the choir sound larger than it is works well. There are some beautiful arias in this cantata. The fourth movement is a tenor solo with violin obbligato, the seventh a soprano and bass duet, and the eight a soprano aria accompanied by a graceful and opulent duet of oboes.
Ich ruf dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 177, opens with an elegant and complex chorus, with an oboe obbligato weaving in and out of the choir. The following aria sets the countertenor in duet with a cello obbligato. This is one of those cases where the instrumental line is so flowing and melodically self-sufficient that the vocal almost become redundant. The pacing here is ideal, with the earthy cello giving a patient account but one that is also subtly shaped and focussed in its phrasing.
Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, BWV 9, has the most immediately engaging opening of the three cantatas. Here the chorus is accompanied by a deep, rich oboe d’amore. The inner movements of this cantata focus primarily on the tenor and bass soloists. Although his vocal powers have dimmed somewhat over the course of this cantata cycle, Peter Kooij is still providing the sound that Suzuki seeks. Although a little lacking in definition, Kooij’s performance is accurate and elegant throughout. The other three singers are also Suzuki regulars. All have been remarkably consistent in the quality and musicality of their performances on previous albums, and they remain so here. But, in these more homogeneous cantatas, there are few chances for any of the soloists to really shine as individuals.
Instead, this instalment in all about ensemble, and as such, it demonstrates one of the main reasons why the entire cycle has been such a success. There have been occasional guest appearances in previous instalments, especially from European instrumental soloists, but on this occasion everybody involved has a long association with the project. The quality of this album suggests that Suzuki is going to maintain the high quality of his recordings right to the end of the cycle. What a shame these regular issues of Suzuki Bach cantatas are about to come to an end. Let’s hope his next project equals, or even approaches, it in ambition and accomplishment.

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