SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

BACH: Cantatas, Vol. 49 – Soloists/ Bach Collegium Japan /Suzuki – BIS

A varied and attractive group of cantatas in performances that maintain the very high standards of this series.

Published on November 30, 2011

BACH: Cantatas, Vol. 49 = Ich habe meine Zuversicht, BWV 188; Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, BWV 156; Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem, BWV 159; Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm, BWV 171 – Rachel Nicholls, soprano/ Robin Blaze countertenor/ Gerd Türk, tenor/ Peter Koij, bass/ Bach Collegium Japan/ Masaaki Suzuki – BIS multichannel SACD, SACD-1891 [Distr. by Qualiton], 72:07 *****:

The narrative thread by which these four cantatas are joined has to do with the work of Christian Friedrich Henrici, a Leipzig poet whose nom de plume was Picander. Picander was a frequent collaborator with Bach, their most enduring project being the St. Matthew Passion. All four of these cantatas are settings of texts from Picander’s cycle of cantatas for the liturgical year 1728-29, beginning on Midsummer’s Day (June 14) and ending on the fourth Sunday after Trinity of 1729. It was Picander’s intention to have the entire cycle set to music by Bach—a prodigious undertaking even for Bach, which would have been made more doable through the Baroque practice of parody, whereby music for one occasion was appropriated for another, the new text ingeniously fit to the existing music. In this way, profane music might become sacred by a discrete swapping out of texts. This was the case with BWV 171, where the soprano aria Jesus soll mein erstes Wort is based on an aria from an earlier secular cantata, Der zufriedengestellte Äolus (Aeolus Appeased, BWV 205). Picander was apparently a dab hand at the practice of parody.

Scholars are divided as to whether Bach actually set the entire cycle for 1728-29. If he did, most of the music is lost; only nine cantatas from the cycle remain, some in fragmentary form, necessitating reconstruction based on scholarship. BWV 188 is one such work. The recitatives, arias, and chorale that make up Numbers 2 through 6 had to be pieced together from copies of the missing autograph score, while the stirring Sinfonia that opens the work, though just a fragment, bore such close resemblance to the last movement of Bach’s Harpischord Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052, that it was clear both works share a common antecedent, a lost violin concerto, and that reconstruction could be based directly on the harpsichord concerto.

BWV 188 was composed for the twenty-first Sunday after Trinity (October 17). The text is based on the scripture lesson for the day, John 4:47-54, which tells of the nobleman’s son who was cured by Jesus through faith. Despite the flashy instrumental opening number and a few vocal flourishes, the cantata is mostly a quiet meditation on faith. Even darker in tone is BWV 159 for Quinquagesima, the last Sunday before Lent. The scripture for the day was taken from Luke 18:31-43; here, Jesus foretells his own death after going up to Jerusalem during the Passover season. The work has some of the solemn majesty of Bach’s Passions.

More upbeat is BWV 156, for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany (January 23, 1729). The scripture for the day, Matthew 8:1-13, describes Jesus’ healing of the leper and the man with palsy. The piece starts with a gentle Sinfonia that sets the contemplative mood of the work; again, this number is familiar thanks to its later incarnation as the slow movement of Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in F Minor, BWV 1056. The second number is the most impressive: the tenor sings Picander’s text against a chorale-like treatment, in the soprano voices, of a dirge written in the seventeenth century by Johann Hermann Schein. The fourth number, a joyous aria for soprano with oboe accompaniment celebrates Christian acceptance of God’s will (Herr, was du willt, soll mir gefallenLord, whatever you wish will please me).

In BWV 171, the cantata for New Year’s Day 1729, Bach brought out the trumpets and drums. The scripture for the day, Luke 2:21, deals with the naming of Jesus, January 1 being generally celebrated as the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. The arias for tenor and soprano are sprightly, dancelike pieces in Bach’s best festive manner, and the trumpets bring belated dash to the opening choral fugue, where they enter as the last “voice” in the fugue. Trumpets and drums add celebratory flourishes to the final chorale.

This is a varied group of cantatas despite the cyclic concept that underlies them. They make an attractive foursome and are given the royal treatment by Masaaki Suzuki and his forces. If some of the earlier entries in this series were a bit tentative, Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan have been getting things right for a long while now. The work by the instrumentalists and choristers is razor-sharp and thoroughly sympathetic, the solo work by members of the orchestra first-rate in every way. I think, too, that Suzuki’s four soloists are the best team recording these works at present—and of course there are a number of other worthy Bach series recently completed or nearing completion by, among others, Ton Koopman, John Eliot Gardiner, and Philippe Herreweghe.

While some reviewers have found Suzuki’s performances a little too polished and even polite, I think that charge can’t be leveled at the recent issues I’ve heard, including Vol. 49, which maintains the lofty standards of the last yea-many volumes. Plus, the SACD sound from BIS is bright, perfectly balanced, panoramic—everything a high-res recording should be. Highly recommended!

—Lee Passarella




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