JS BACH Cantatas of Contentment
This release represents the end of an era, and not just the end of Bach Collegium Japan’s long-running series of all the sacred and secular cantatas which launched in 1995 like a shining bolt from the east. Masaaki Suzuki began his voyage at a time when Ton Koopman was embarking on his equivalent project, and with John Eliot Gardiner continuing a series for DG soon to become subsumed by his Pilgrimage over the course of the Millennial year. And – lest one forget – the hit-and-miss, budget complete recordings under Pieter Jan Leusink on Brilliant Classics were also in full swing. The partnership of BIS (namely Robert von Bahr) and BCJ could indeed be one of the very last recording investments of this nature and length in the modern digital era.
We celebrate it here with many of Suzuki’s finest qualities of expressive lucidity, unforced coherence and the quiet nobility of one serving the music as the most natural of reflexes. Cantata No 30a is a welcome serenata (to the new ‘landlord, liege and judge’ of the district) formed of five exquisite arias and framed by a buoyantly direct chorus. The cantata appears 15 or so years later as a sacred parody for the feast of St John the Baptist (‘Freue dich’) – a superb example of Bach’s uncanny ability to recast material and effortlessly shape it afresh without suspicion of previous provenance.
With all the soloists taking their turn to praise the incumbent, Dominik Wörner does so with rather less of the nonchalant fluidity and resonance of his seasoned predecessor Peter Kooij. However, Robin Blaze – representing the allegory of ‘good fortune’ – lightly glides through his picture of unequivocal goodwill with customary panache. Most consistently satisfying in the secular volumes has been Suzuki’s radiant instrumental contributions, affording these works a kind of genial ‘outdoors’ sensibility, perhaps most striking of all in Vol 8 (Nos 206 and 215 – 8/17).
Carolyn Sampson’s ever-inspiring contributions close the project with Ich bin in mir vernügt, a little-known solo soprano cantata compared to the Nos 51, 199 and 210s of this world. While the text is decidedly prolix, Bach’s dogged transformational instincts provide the kind of liquid vocalisation upon which Sampson thrives. Just when one thought it impossible to hear Bach sung any better than in her recent performance of No 105 (arr Schumann – Ondine, 8/18), she brings an Arcadian coloration to ‘Meine Seele sei vernügt’, placing her among the finest exponents on record of this composer’s peerlessly demanding soprano-writing.