Skip to main content

 Recording of the Week  Bach Cantatas from Masaaki Suzuki

Eighteen years ago, in 1995, Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan (BCJ) began a project which would put them firmly on the world map as one of the leading exponents of Bach’s music in modern times. With the release of Volume 55 their series of the composer’s complete church cantatas – recorded in chronological order – reaches its conclusion. Masaaki was in London last week, and I took the opportunity to meet with him to congratulate him on that monumental achievement, and also to quiz him a little on some of the challenges and decisions he had faced in the process.

Masaaki Suzuki
Masaaki Suzuki

The first challenge I asked him about was the fact that before he came along, Japan was not at all renowned as a place for Baroque music. He formed the BCJ in 1990 and they began their Bach Cantata series of concerts in 1992, and while he himself initially wondered who would come to their performances he was pleased (and perhaps slightly surprised) to discover that there was already very much an existing audience of enthusiastic Bach lovers in Japan. Over the years that audience has grown further, and even for a performance of three pretty unknown cantatas they now always get an audience of over a thousand people at their concerts in Tokyo.

I actually think this lack of a performing tradition locally has probably helped them, as one of the key attributes of this series is the remarkable freshness. It has been prevalent throughout the cycle and combined with the small choir (typically 12 voices, I think) and small period-instrument orchestra it really is an ideal combination. Masaaki and his performers seem to live and breathe this music and there is so much joy and immediacy in their music-making.

We talked a little about soloists (largely although by no means exclusively non-Japanese) and the choir (women rather than boys as Bach would have had). Both decisions were as suspected based on his quest for the best possible artistic results. Although he was far too modest to even agree with me, I think there is a real hope that what he has started will lead to a lasting legacy of Baroque singers in Japan – but those new generations haven’t yet really emerged. The same can’t be said of the instrumentalists who make up the BCJ, though. They are very much already competing with the best in the world. It is simply outstanding playing, virtually faultless, and threatening on occasion to eclipse the singers, who are equally hard to fault!

Another key element of any series like this is the relationship with the record label. In Swedish label BIS and their owner/founder/producer Robert von Bahr they found the ideal partner, and the recorded sound (especially after moving to SACD from volume 28 onwards) has been rightly praised throughout.

For those who asked about the remainder of the secular cantatas yet to be recorded, the good news is that yes, they are still very much planned. I think Masaaki said there were about 5 or 6 more discs of those to come, and also two discs of the Lutheran Masses, one of which is already in the can and will be released next year. After that? Well, he said he wants to carry on exploring works for choir and orchestra based on the Bible, and that we should look forward to Mozart’s Requiem, C minor Mass, and then Mendelssohn.

As many readers will no doubt already know, BIS are kindly offering (exclusively through us) a free 76 minute download of highlights from this series. You can see full details of that sampler here. It is available until the end of the month.

Then to further mark the conclusion of the series we’re pleased to be able to offer 20% off both CDs and downloads on all 55 volumes. Full details of that offer here.

Or, if you’ve simply read the above, haven’t really heard any of the series before, and just want to buy a CD (which I’m very confident you’ll enjoy hugely) then the link to Volume 55 you’ll find below.

Bach - Cantatas Volume 55

Hana Blažíková, Robin Blaze, Gerd Türk & Peter Kooij, Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC