Ryan Michero wrote (March 29, 1999):
Finally, here is my first installment in a series of reviews of the Suzuki complete cantata series on BIS. I've started with Volume 2 because it is one of my favorites and because we recently discussed recordings of BWV 106. Of course, I need to do some work to get caught up with the series--luckily they are moving pretty slowly. When I get caught up I'll review each volume as it is released. Here it is:
We lovers of Bach's sacred cantatas live in a very exciting time. Not only are there two "complete" recorded sets of the cantatas already finished (by Rilling on modern instruments and by Harnoncourt and Leonhardt on period instruments), but there are two more sets in progress (Koopman and Suzuki) and another coming soon (Gardiner), not to mention excellent single volumes (by Herreweghe, Jürgens, and Werner, to name a few) and various "incomplete" sets (Richter) already on the market. All of these recordings offer fascinating perspectives on the inexhaustible riches of Bach's cantatas. That being said, the ongoing cantata series being recorded by Masaaki Suzuki leading the Bach Collegium Japan is my favorite; in fact, I don't hesitate to say these are most satisfying sacred cantata recordings I have ever heard.
The thought of a Japanese ensemble performing German Lutheran vocal music may make you a bit apprehensive, as it did me at first. I wondered, could they measure up to European ensembles in their feel for the German baroque idiom? In expressiveness? In polish? In their pronunciation of German texts? Despite these misgivings, I took a chance and bought one of their recordings. Not only did they silence all of my fears, but I was captivated by their rich, beautiful sound, their interpretive power, and their expressive intensity--qualities too often lacking even in the best of European ensembles.
In my opinion, this series goes from strength to strength. Suzuki is an enthralling interpreter of these works. He pierces straight to the heart of them, always sensitive to the meaning of their texts, making the most of the wide range of emotions they contain. A former student of Ton Koopman, Suzuki approaches cantata performance in much the same way; however, in my opinion he surpasses his master in interpretive insight and expressive intensity. The BCJ Choir, usually from four to eighteen singers strong, is outstanding. They can sing with expression, power, dignity, grace, and lightness when needed, and every voice is clearly audible. The vocal soloists are always reliable, often wonderful. My favorites include the boyish, expressive sopranos Midori Suzuki, Ingrid Schmithuesen, and Aki Yanagisawa, the warm-toned Counter-tenor Yoshikazu Mera, the fine tenors Gerd Türk and Makoto Sakurada, and the fantastic baritone Peter Kooy, who is featured on almost every volume. The period-instrument orchestra has a rich, full sound that is quite unique. It often includes distinguished soloists like Ryo Terakado (violin), Hidemi Suzuki (cello), Marcel Ponseele (oboe), Alfredo Bernardini (oboe), and Kaori Uemura (viola da gamba). These forces are always beautifully recorded in the Shoin Women's University Chapel, which imparts a heavenly reverberance without clouding the counterpoint of Bach's writing. The reverberance may be a drawback for some, but for me what is lost in clarity is made up in the richer sound. Liner notes are always thorough and illuminating, even if their English translation is a bit confusing sometimes. Usually, general notes on the recorded works are followed by notes on the details of their performance, written by Suzuki himself. The notes are given in English, German, and French along with complete texts and fine English translations. Suzuki's set is great for those just getting to know the cantatas as well as those not completely satisfied with the readings of his competitors. Suzuki obviously knows and loves these works, and he brings out the best in all of them.
If Vol.1 was a bit tentative, Vol.2 is where Suzuki and the BCJ really hit their stride. It includes great performances of two "favorite" cantatas (BWV 106 and BWV 131, the latter a particular favorite of Suzuki) and one lesser-known piece (BWV 71). This is an essential volume!
BWV 71 - "Gott is mein König"
Suzuki and company turn in a rousing rendition of this celebratory early Weimar cantata. While the choral singing is fine, the soloists (Suzuki, Mera, Türk, and Kooy) steal the show in their "soli" sections, blending their voices beautifully. Two aria performances deserve special mention: the lovely bass aria with great singing by Kooy and chill-inducing wind playing, and the extrovert alto aria which features fine period trumpeting. Suzuki conducts with brilliance and pomp in the big outer movements and with sensitivity in the arias and the quiet, strange "turtle dove" chorus.
BWV 131 - "Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu dir"
An inspired performance. The Adagio section of the opening choral Sinfonia is gorgeously sung and played, with outstanding oboe playing by Marcel Ponseele. I'm listening to it now through my terrible computer speakers, and it still gives me chills! When the Vivace section begins on the words "Herr, hoere meine Stimme", Suzuki shows his talent at conducting fugues. He is helped by clear, alert choral singing. A great first movement! Kooy and Midori Suzuki sing the following aria with chorale beautifully, and Ponseele again impresses with his oboe playing. The central choral movement is relaxed and gentle, with a lovely finish. The tenor aria with alto chorale is also nicely sung, capturing the hope in the text. And never underestimate the importance of a great continuo section: the excellent playing of the cello (Hidemi Suzuki) and organ are crucial to the success of this movement. Suzuki's handling of tempo and dynamics changes in the final chorus are very effective, and the choir sounds amazing. A beautifully shaped chromatic double-fugue brings the work to an exciting close.
BWV 106 - "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit"
Another inspired performance! The opening Sonatina is taken slower than normal, but I find it incredibly moving. This is as fine an evocation of heavenly peace as I have ever heard. The recorders and violas da gamba sound simply beautiful together (this the early Weimar version, sans oboes). Suzuki brings drama to the following multi-sectioned movement, making perfect sense of the changes in text and music. There is lovely singing and playing throughout, and the trailing off of the soprano at the end is handled beautifully. Aki Yanagisawa's young, boyish voice is perfect for the final cries of "Ja, komm, Herr Jesu". The ending nearly stops my heart whenever I hear it. The third movement is hardly less involving. Mera deserves special mention for his wonderful singing in the section beginning "In deine Haende". The final chorus begins peacefully with a beautiful Bachian melody on the recorders. The choir, in open harmony, sounds delectably serene. A happily sung fugue brings the work to a bright, hopeful end.