Only some twenty works out of what was originally a far greater number of secular cantatas have survived in performable condition. They nevertheless offer a welcome complement to our image of Bach the church musician, and reveal a composer who approached secular music with the same artistic integrity and demand for quality that we find in his sacred music.
As the mysterious opening bars of the Kyrie gradually emerge into the light, we know that this recording of Mozart’s glorious Great Mass in C minor is a special one: the tempi perfect, the unfolding drama of the choral writing so carefully judged, and, above it all, the crystalline beauty of soloist Carolyn Sampson’s soprano, floating like a ministering angel. Masaaki Suzuki’s meticulous attention to detail, so rewarding in his remarkable Bach recordings, shines throughout this disc, the playing alert, the choir responsive, the soloists thrilling. And there is the bonus of an exhilarating Exsultate, Jubilate with Sampson on top form.
Bach's setting of the Magnificat is one of his most often-recorded vocal works; as a rule, it's paired with one of Bach's lavishly scored festal cantatas. (The Easter Oratorio seems to be a current favorite.) Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan had a different idea: they've paired Bach's Magnificat with roughly contemporary settings by Johann Kuhnau, who was Bach's immediate predecessor in Leipzig, and Jan Dismas Zelenka, who was a composer at the court of Saxony in Dresden. Zelenka is an interesting composer, among the most underrated of the Baroque era. His writing is less dense and intricate than Bach's–at times it looks forward to the simpler, more elegant style of Haydn and C.P.E. Bach. Zelenka knew his counterpoint, however, and was fond of slipping the occasional surprising chord change into his music.
For this hybrid SACD of famous organ works by J.S. Bach, Masaaki Suzuki plays the restored Schnitger-Hinz organ in the Martinikerk (Martin's Church), in Groningen, one of the most celebrated instruments in the Netherlands and one which dates back to Bach's time. Its bright, Baroque sonorities and Suzuki's historically informed interpretations give these performances a compelling sense of authenticity and period style. The pieces are among Bach's greatest hits, particularly the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which gives the program a decisive opening. Following that flashy demonstration, Suzuki is relaxed and almost contemplative in the Pastorale in F major, and continues his thoughtful readings in the Partita on "O Gott, du frommer Gott," the Prelude and Fugue in G minor, and the Canonic Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her." Yet he includes two sparkling virtuoso performances in the Fantasia in G major and the Prelude and Fugue in E minor, which keep the album from being too soft and subdued. BIS' super audio sound is crisp and detailed, which is no mean feat in a church recording.
Suzuki presents the 1749 version of the St. John Passion, a work that underwent many changes since its first performance in 1724. This fourth version, performed at the end of Bach's life, represents his ultimate vision of this great work. (Suzuki includes in an appendix three arias from the 1725 version that Bach removed from this later version.)
Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan made their first recording of the St Matthew Passion in March 1999. Twenty years later, in April 2019, it was time once again, as the singers and players gathered in the Concert Hall of the Saitama Arts Theater in Japan. ‘A profound joy’ is how Masaaki Suzuki describes his emotion at the opportunity to record Bach’s great fresco of Christ’s Passion for a second time. And this time, he and his ensemble have brought with them into the concert hall a profound and collective familiarity with Bach’s choral music, after having recorded more or less all of it in the meantime, including the complete sacred cantatas.