..... or still seeking the perfect 200? I don't know about you, but I've had a hell of a job over the years trying to collect a satisfactory complete set of Bach's cantatas. Harnoncourt/Leonhardt, Suzuki, Gardiner and Koopman all have their considerable merits, with only the pedestrian Rilling being completely out of contention as far as I'm concerned - although I see some reviewers are happy enough with it. But the trouble is that, every time you decide to take the plunge and start collecting one particular series, two things happen - first, you discover your new best friend is not perfect after all, and second, someone else comes along with another version, just as good or even better, of some of these endlessly fascinating works. Or perhaps it's simply a case of the grass being greener.
Having said that, I've been finding Masaaki Suzuki's Bach Collegium Japan series consistently more satisfying than most, and this volume 51 is a very good example for two reasons. Firstly, it contains some very fine works which will be among the least familiar to many cantata enthusiasts, including me - a point I'll come back to in a moment; and secondly, Suzuki's performers seem to get better and better, and for this CD they are outstanding. The four works here were all commissioned or occasional pieces, composed for special events such as weddings. That's the case, for example, with the richly scored BWV 195, "Dem Gerechten muss das Licht immer wieder aufgehen". Its treasures include an uplifting opening chorus with some lovely instrumental interventions; a fine bass aria, again with nicely pointed playing; and another fine accompanied chorus in "Wir kommen, deine Heiligkeit". Next the fairly short BWV 192, "Nun danket alle Gott", opens with another great chorus with lively singing by the excellent choir, followed by a lovely soprano/bass duet, taken most beautifully by the two singers and the instruments. Here I must mention the outstanding contribution of Czech soprano Hana Blazíková, who really has emerged as a terrific asset to recent volumes in Suzuki's series - her pure, steady and distinctive voice also readily recognisable in the choral movements sung by the small Bach Collegium ripieno choir which includes the four soloists*.
BWV 157, "Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn", composed for a memorial service, is a poignant work in Bach's contemplative vein, opening with a very finely sung tenor/bass duet; the bass aria (track 13) with recitative/arioso is also lovely, with beautiful parts for flute and viola d'amore. For me, however, the most striking and unusual work here is the other wedding cantata, BWV 120a, "Herr Gott, Beherrscher aller Dinge". This has been reconstructed from the more commonly heard BWV 120, "Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille", for which Bach recycled several movements from the slightly earlier 120a - and indeed the two works make a fascinating comparison for listeners who have a recording of the former or are prepared to seek one out (the one I know is directed by Herreweghe: Bach: Wir danken dir, Gott - Cantatas BWV 29, 119, 120 /Herreweghe). Anyway, 120a is a lovely work, richly scored and opening with a joyous celebratory chorus which Bach also commandeered later for the "et exspecto" section of the Credo in the B minor Mass. Here, too, it goes with a real swing. The soprano aria (track 17) is lovely, again wonderfully rendered with Ms Blazíková's usual style, grace and tonal beauty. This is followed by one of JSB's most dazzling movements, the Sinfonia with organ solo part which he also used later to introduce BWV 29, but which had originated as the Prelude from the E major solo violin Partita. Here it gets a lively, elegant performance which places it perfectly within the rest of the work; and the other highlight of this final cantata on the disc is a gorgeous duet for alto and tenor, "Herr, fange an und sprich den Segen", beautifully delivered by countertenor Damien Guillon and tenor Christopher Genz. I haven't yet mentioned the other soloist, bass Peter Kooij, but his contribution to this programme is excellent as usual.
This, then, is one of the finest Bach Collegium volumes I've heard so far. It brings some unexpected revelations (for most listeners at least), and Suzuki's vision of the works, historically-informed style and musicianship are of a very high order with outstanding contributions from soloists, choir and instrumental players alike. Even if you already have, or are collecting, a different set of the cantatas, I'd say it's a good argument for doing some picking and mixing - which may well include bits of the various series named above, as well as selections from Kuijken, Herreweghe, Rifkin, Biller or even the Richterosaurus. I don't suppose there will ever be an ideal cantata series, but Suzuki and his bunch seem to be giving it a pretty good go.
*P.S. In case you want to hear more of the angelic Hana Blazíková, you can hear plenty of her at her best in a really lovely Supraphon recording of Bohemian baroque music, Laudate pueri dominum. At the time of writing it can be sampled on this Amazon site, and it's available in CD format from amazon.de or from the label's own website.