When the first CD of the Bach cantata series from the Bach Collegium Japan was released, I was immediately convinced by the project – Classic CD magazine offered two tracks from Actus Tragicus that I found simply otherworldly. Having bought the CD, I found not only all the performances praiseworthy, but also the explanations about performance choices scholarly, sincere and sensible – especially what was written about the reason for such an enterprise coming from a group in Japan considering the religious expression inevitably linked to these works. Therefore, when I have decided to come to Japan, my first thought was trying to find an opportunity to see the BCJ live.
This decision met the unexpected news that they would be performing three Bach cantatas in their own Kobe Shoin Chapel, the acoustics of which are widely praised. So that was it – I was to go to Kobe to see them. What I didn’t know before is that the building of that chapel was in fact the remote origin of the whole Bach cantata series. So it has more than a special meaning for the project.
It seems that the idea of building the chapel has to do with the fact that the Shoin Women’s University is an Anglican institution that, as such, views the study and practice of music as an important part of education. When the new campus was settled in 1981, it was decided that the chapel would be its centerpiece. Prof. Tatsuji Hirashima, a chemist whose studies finally shifted to the area of acoustics and tuning, was chosen to coordinate the acoustic project and the installation of the pipe organ (a French-styled instrument built by Marc Garnier in 1983).
When Prof. Hirashima died in 1986, Prof. Masaaki Suzuki was invited to take his place and, in order to fulfil the chapel’s musical activities, Bach Collegium Japan was created in 1990. Five years later, the president of BIS, the Swedish classical music label, visited Kobe and proposed the recording of the complete series of Bach cantatas. They are currently on volume 40. Considering the carefully placed microphones, I have the impression that Saturday’s concert was being taped.
Rarely has the experience of visiting the venue where a concert would be held has affected my impression on the music I would hear as in that afternoon. There is a benign atmosphere about that place – you would never guess you were attending a concert of a world-famous famous group to be eventually released in the international market. Some of the kindest and most artless people greet you as you approach the chappel. Then you are given a number while you wait outside. Then this nice gentleman takes a microphone and start to call number by number so that you take a seat inside. While that happens, you can see the performers stroll nearby, take a glass of water or something like that.
Once inside, you realise that the chapel is not a perfect concert venue. Although the CD booklets always show the musicians in the rear side of the building, the “stage” was set in the entrance. So microphones had to be removed in order to let people in and then replaced. A North-European lady (someone from BIS, I guess) with a roll of tape on her hand would eventually ask some members of the audience to excuse her while she settled cables on the ground etc. Other than this, as one could have imagined, there is no inclination in order to prevent people in one role from blocking the view of those seated behind.
The program centered around cantatas written for Leipzig in 1726. The opening item was BWV 43 Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzet. I have to confess that the first chorus gave me a puzzling impression. Before choristers started to sing, I was struck by the warmest and most immediate sound one could think of, but as soon singers joined the instruments, I found the aural image rather tangled. This impression was increased by the following recitative and aria, when tenor Gerd Türk was under heavy weather trying to be heard. I am no specialist in acoustics, but I did have the impression the medium and lower ranges were somehown overblown – I cannot explain exactly, but there was a problem in balance. When soprano Rachel Nicholls sang the first words in the next recitative, I’ve started to think that the problem could be Mr. Türk’s tenor’s limited volume, for Nicholls’s bell-toned soprano easily filled the church. The next soloist, Peter Kooij, is a singer I had previously seen in 1999 in Rio (a Johannes Passion with Philippe Herreweghe). His pleasant round bass has lost a bit of its former resonance, especially in the lower end, but again I could not help noticing that lower tessitura was especially problematic – it seemed again that the medium and lower ranges seemed over-resonant, making it difficult for this singer to pierce through. However, my impression from Kooij in the past was that his strong rich-toned voice was perfectly hearable in a large hall as the one in Rio. The ensuing aria was probably the most problematic number in the whole concert – the excessively warm acoustics, mismatches between singer, orchestra and trumpet (I know, valveless trumpet is an ordeal for a performer, but the tuning was a bit trying for the audience too) teamed up for a messy result. Countertenor Robin Blaze’s bright sound fared a bit better (he was also in particularly fluent voice).
The next cantata, BWV 88 Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden featured similar problems, but one must single out Mr. Kooij’s amazingly long breath and clear divisions in his opening aria. Also, Ms. Nicholls deserves some considerations. I will right away say that she made me an admirer – it is an exceptionally firm, sweet-toned voice with none of those constricted, unflowing high notes some sopranos in this repertoire tend to produce. She also sings with unfailing grace and sense of style and, more commendably, handles the text knowingly. I only believe she was a bit outside the scale of the event – her voice was somewhat too powerful for that chapel and it is not because she was singing too loud. Saying that she could pierce through the orchestra (something her colleagues were having some trouble to accomplish) is an understatement: she presided over the sound picture and sometimes her top notes were quite obtruding. To say that there is something wrong with her would be more than unfair – this is an admirable quality for a Bach singer, I mean, to keep this level of purity without constriction or downscaling. I could not help recalling the Matthäus Passion with Helmut Rilling in the Carnegie Hall in 2007 when Sybilla Rubens’s soprano sounded pale and fragile in the big auditorium, whereas Rachel Nicholls would have probably sounded delightful instead. Here, she was an uncomfortable duettist for Blaze in Beruft Gott selbst, when she basically overshadowed him, even when she tried to pull back the brightness of her sound.
I have to confess I was really frustrated to this point. I know some of the world’s most famous acoustics can be challenging for visiting orchestras (such as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam), but hearing the “house band” in such unfavorable circumstances seemed a mystery to my so far. After the intermission, we would have not only a longer, but more famous (and also most impressive) work in BWV 146 Wir müssen dürch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen.
The cantata opened in a positive note – the organ obligatto part gave us the opportunity to listen to the smooth sound of the chapel’s organ and soloist Masato Suzuki relished the opportunity. The opening sinfonia was played in the grand manner. The ensuing chorus surprised me in its absolute clarity – instead of having the acoustics playing against them, singers and instrumentists used the warm sound to produce an unforgettable atmosphere. Finally that was the Bach Collegium Japan I was wishing to hear! This number is particularly tricky in its dissonant effects, and the balance achieved by the chorus (2 sopranos, three altos, three tenors and three basses) was outstanding. Robin Blaze sang an immaculate Ich will nach dem Himmel zu and my only complaint again Rachel Nicholl’s exquisite singing in Ich säe meine Zähren is that she did not blend with the woodwind concertante writing as expected.
Considering that BWV 146 is a well-known work and more often performed than both BWV 43 and 88, I tend to believe that the BWV 146 had benefited from more performance experience from the BCJ than the other works, which not only need a bit more polishing but also require some adjustment to the delicate if ultimately rewarding acoustics (in the ideal conditions). I wonder if the performance I attended is going to be used by BIS – the first two cantatas will certainly need some cosmetic adjustment. The BCJ series has been famous for polish and these items would contrast with previous releases.