It is almost certain that Bach, at least for his early cantatas, composed them with the expectation that each entire work be performed by four soloists - no choir or "ripienists," just 4 "concertists." Joshua Rifkin was the most notable and earliest proponents of this theory, and Rifkin's Bach Ensemble recorded them as such., For that and many other reasons, the Rifkin recordings are the gold standard, both for their formal clarity and beauty of performance. (See my review of that recording.)
Nevertheless, these recordings have all the depth and spiritual truth (as noted by an earlier reviewer) that one could ask for from a performance of these works. And the musicianship of the conductor, chorus (just a few extra singers, not a great wall of sound as is encountered, for instance, in John Eliot Gardiner's work) and soloists here is so breathtaking that even die-hard partisans of the OVPP performance practice (such as this writer) will find this record indispensible.
The album here features 3 cantatas, among Bach's earliest, composed while he was the organist at the Blasiuskirche in the imperial free city of Mullhausen (umlaut over the "u"), 1707-08 - where Bach was employed as organist in his early twenties. Cantatas 131 and 106 are among Bach's most popular cantatas, and deservedly so. Cantata 106, called the "Actus Tragicus" (so-named named after that title appeared on the heading of an early edition), is, according to Alfred Durr (umlaut over the "u"), "a work of genius such as even great masters seldom acheive", which "belongs to the great musical literature of the world." Cantata 131, whose title/first line, "Aus der Tiefen," ("Out of the depths") is based nearly entirely on the text of Psalm 130, and might have been written as a memorial service, but which, in any case, has a funereal character, and is up there with the Actus Tragicus in popularity.
As on this album, 106 and 131 are very frequently played/recorded together, composed perhaps weeks apart (131 could be Bach's first church cantata, 106 on its heels). Cantata 71 - written for the Council Elections at Mullhausen during the same brief period is lesser known but is an amazing acheivment in its own right. Interestingly, for 71, Bach actually distinguished the music sung by the soloists and that sung by the soloists (optionally) augmented by one or two singers in each part called "ripienists," that is, "fillers."
Which brings us to this recording. The Bach Collegium Japan uses more than one voice per part, but not many more, and the conductor, Masaaki Suzuki, employs an acumen for period instrumentation and performance practice that seems a response to nothing less than divine vocation.
The bulk of the music in these three cantatas is carried by the soloists, each of whom has a voice and vocal technique that is so fluent and pure as to render one speechless before its unmatched elegance and beauty. The highlight of this group is undoubtedly the amazing countertenor, Yoshikazu Mera who, in 106 bestows the aria "In deine haende" as though a donation from the spheres themselves. As an earlier reviewer noted, Mera announces his parts in this music with a level of virtuosity seldom encountered anywhere, an unassailable demonstration that Beauty, along with Unity, Goodness, and Truth, is a transcendental attribute. Almost equally compelling is the spectacular soprano Aki Yanagisawa, who sings on 106. The other soloists are also very fine.
As much as I love the Rifkin recordings, I return again and again to these "to refresh the spirit" as Bach once wrote of his musical purpose. If you don't know the OVPP sound, you should really listen to Rifkin. But this music is so great that if you're like me, you'll need several recordings. I hope that you will share my enthusiasm for this great album.