In a program named “Early Cantatas for Easter and Pentecost”, the Bach Collegium Japan offered this evening three cantatas – Christ lag in Todes Banden (BWV 4 – Mühlhausen, 1707 or 1708), Die Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret! (BWV 31 – Weimar, 1715) and Erschallet, ihr Lieder (BWV 172 – Weimar, 1714, this one being the Pentecost item), preceded by three organ pieces BWV 531, 618 and 667) and by Pachelbel’s take on the Christ lag in Todes Banden text.
The program was exuberantly opened by Masato Suzuki’s playing of the Lüneburg Prelude and Fugue in C, the pedal opening played with more gusto than elegance, something we would miss when the choral pieces would finally begin. To start with, the Pachelbel item is not the most varied or inspired piece in the world and I would rather believe that it was chosen to highlight Bach’s superior imagination and abilities. In any case, it was a rare opportunity to sample it, aptly performed by the BCJ from a very introspective point of view. BWV 4 itself can be a rather atmospheric piece, as one can sample in John Eliot Gardiner’s live recording from Eisenach, a poignant sinfonia paving the way to an opening chorus that steadily grows in intensity. This evening, “intensity” is not the word I would use to describe it, but rather a cold elegance that made some of the more buoyant passages almost lighthearted. Yet it paid off in an exquisite soprano/alto duet, abstract in an almost otherworldly manner. While Gardiner avoided solo singing, Masaaki Suzuki, as much as Harnoncourt, had the choir singing the “coro” items. Soprano Hana Blazikova’s and countertenor Hiroya Aoki’s voices were perfectly blended in ethereal mezza voce.
BWV 31 had a very bump start. Natural trumpets can be testing for the musicians but this evening they proved to be difficult for the audience too. In BWV 4, the reduced orchestra sounded – in the Tokyo Opera City acoustics – quite scrawny and overshadowed by the choir. And the trumpets only made things more difficult. Moreover, BWV 31’s opening chorus is a tough cookie in what regards balance. I’m afraid that this evening “clarity” was not part of the recipe. Among the soloists, Makoto Sakurada showed himself as an almost ideal Bach tenor, exceptionally firm-toned, flexible and clear in enunciation. He handles the recitatives very adeptly, but could relax a bit and just “carry the tune” in a more spontaneous way in the arias. In any case, in comparison, to Dominik Wörner, he would could be taken as a model of legato. The German bass sings in an almost parlando style in a voice so poor in harmonics that sometimes you could take him for a tenor. Here Hana Blazikova too had her edgy moments and lacked tone in her lower register. In Gardiner’s recording, Gillian Keith sounds warmer and more engaging in comparison. Those allergic to vibrato, even used in a very sensible way, would not agree with me, I am afraid. De gustibus.
The final item, BWV 172, happens to be my very favorite Bach cantata and the BCJ choir did not disappoint me, singing with animation and clarity in an ideal pace set by Maestro Suzuki for the opening (and closing) chorus. Unfortunately, the reduced strings still proved to be problematic for balance. In spite of the meager tonal quality, Wörner dealt commendably with the low tessitura and the florid writing – sometimes better than some more famous singers. Moreover, he must have a very good sense of pitch to keep his line singing together with a very wayward “holy trinity” of trumpets. Again, Sakurada proved to have no technical problems in this writing, but found very little sensuousness in his depiction of spiritual paradise. A shortcoming also found in Blazikova’s countribution for the ecstatic duet in which she failed to float high notes and produce really clear trills. Aoki, on the other hand, was admirably sensitive and HEARABLE (I have many recordings of this cantata and the countertenor is usually eclipsed by the soprano here – not this evening, I am glad to report).