Where resides the best Bach Orchestra and Chorus in the world? Leipzig? Berlin? Germany at least? Amsterdam – where the great Bach tradition still lives on vibrantly? London, where the early music movement attained its first heights? Maybe, but for my money try Kobe, Japan. Forgive for a second the hyperbole of “best”: there are other really, really fine ensembles that do Bach extremely proud. But the Bach Collegium Japan (BCJ) and its founding director Masaaki Suzuki are are part of the exclusive high-end of interpreters of the Leipzig’s Master and need yield to no one in the quality of their Bach performances.
Founded in 1990, the group embarked in 1995 upon a project to record all the cantatas that Bach wrote. This impressive achievement will be finished any day now, with the last of the secular cantatas being releases this year. Being an inveterate lover of Bach cantatas and their recordings, I’ve followed this cycle (on BIS) from relatively early on, though my hard-earned money was, in those student days, on Ton Koopman and his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra which the Erato had started. That project was unceremoniously dumped by the label, much like John Eliot Gardiner’s similar beginnings of a cycle were aborted by Deutsche Grammophon’s Archiv sublabel. Both conductors managed to found and fund their own recording cycles, subsequently… so not all was lost. But BIS stayed on course. Early on, I found Suzuki and his Bach-singing and -playing ilk a little fast, a little on the cold, technical side, but undeniably precise… impressive, if not quite my thing. This impression changed, somewhere around volume 20 or 23. Suddenly these performances, still drawn with a knife and in every way impeccable, also attained a greater sense of warmth and glowing geniality and the soloists that Suzuki employed – especially some of the female voices – went from very good to good-as-it-gets: Thank you Carolyn Sampson and Dorothee Mields and Hana Blažíkova, among others!
Continued at Forbes.com