Masaaki Suzuki was better known as a keyboard player in the first decade or so of his career, but since about 1990 has established himself as one of the leading conductors of Baroque choral music. Suzuki was born in Kobe, Japan, on April 29, 1954. As a child he exhibited musical talent early on and by age 12 was a church organist. He later enrolled at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, where he studied composition and organ.
Listeners familiar with any of Masaaki Suzuki's many Bach recordings for BIS are likely to know what to expect from his recording of the Well-Tempered Klavier Book II: immaculate playing, impeccable taste, and immediate sound. Perhaps best-known internationally for his series of recordings of Bach's cantatas and other sacred works, Suzuki started his career as a superlative keyboard player, and as his performance here on the harpsichord demonstrates, he has kept his skills well-honed.
While one might reasonably prefer this, that or the other recording of Bach's "Goldberg" Variations, one should still take the time to listen to this 1997 recording of the work played on the harpsichord by Masaaki Suzuki on BIS. For one thing, Suzuki is the conductor of BIS' series of Bach Cantata recordings and it is interesting to hear what he can do on his own without other musicians as intermediaries.
Following his magnificent recording of J.S. Bach's Inventions and Sinfonias for BIS last year, the Japanese harpsichordist/organist/conductor Masaaki Suzuki here offers more revelatory performances of some of Bach's equally well known (as well as some lesser known) masterpieces. With this collection, simply titled Fantasias & Fugues, Suzuki provides a grand overview of Bach's lifelong sporadic exploration of the Fantasia genre.
Although two of the works on this disc were composed for weddings, they are completely different in character. Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten is a charming and gracious garland of recitatives and arias for soprano solo in which Spring, Flora, Apollo and Amor are all invoked in a blessing of the newly wedded couple and their union.
The Quodlibet (Latin for ‘what pleases’) on the other hand, is an altogether unceremonious composition which was probably intended for a private function in Bach’s own circle or family. All we have is a fragment of the work – in Bach’s own hand – and the beginning and ending of the piece, including the title page, are missing.
Compared with J.S. Bach’s production of church music his secular vocal works occupy a modest place in his output: today we know of the existence of some fifty secular cantatas, but only about half of these have survived in performable condition. They were occasional pieces, tailored especially to the situation that engendered them. Unlike the church cantatas they could therefore not be performed again in unaltered form, and were thus of little practical interest for Bach’s heirs. The earliest surviving secular cantata is the ‘Hunt’ Cantata, composed in 1713 in Weimar for the birthday of Duke Christian of Sachsen-Weißenfels.
Just over twenty secular cantatas by JS Bach have survived, and we know of almost thirty other cantatas that are now lost. The secular cantatas were almost all composed for some important, festive event in a family or in public, academic or political life. The present disc includes one of the most regularly performed of these works, the Coffee Cantata. This was written around 1734, probably for a performance at the Zimmermann Coffee House in Leipzig.
The disc opens with O holder Tag, a wedding cantata for solo soprano dated, in the version here performed, to 1741. (The piece was actually used in more or less modified form by Bach on at least five different occasions, from as early on as 1729.) The solo soprano, in her first BIS recording, is Carolyn Sampson who is one of the most exciting performers in her field today. A stunning introduction to the world of Bach's cantatas and to the incomparable Bach Collegium Japan directed by Masaaki Suzuki.
If the court of Elizabeth I could be compared to a bee-hive, John Dowland was one of its workers, tirelessly bringing in news from the Continent which he constantly visited, and as tirelessly producing the spiritual sustenance vital for the court's existence. It is this honey that Emma Kirkby and Anthony Rooley have gathered in an imaginative recital that focuses on Dowland's relationship to his various patrons – among them Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex.
Masaaki Suzuki was an organist before he was a conductor, and his recordings of Bach's organ works have made a delightful coda to his magisterial survey of Bach cantatas with his Bach Collegium Japan. This selection, the second in a series appearing on the BIS label, gives a good idea of the gems available. You get a good mix of pieces, including a pair of Bach's Vivaldi transcriptions. Fans of Suzuki's cantata series will be pleased to note the similarities in his style between his conducting and his organ playing: there's a certain precise yet deliberate and lush quality common to both. And he has a real co-star here: the organ of the Kobe Shoin Women's University Chapel, built in 1983 by French maker Marc Garnier. The realizations of Bach's transcriptions of Vivaldi concertos fare especially well here, with a panoply of subtle colors in the organ. Sample the first movement of the Concerto in D minor, BWV 596, with its mellow yet transcendently mysterious tones in the string ripieni. BIS backs Suzuki up with marvelously clear engineering in the small Japanese chapel, and all in all, this is a Bach organ recording that stands out from the crowd. Highly recommended.