- Cantata No. 180, "Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele," BWV 180 (BC A149)
- Cantata No. 122, "Das neugeborne Kindelein," BWV 122 (BC A19)
- Cantata No. 96, "Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn," BWV 96 (BC A142)
Several complete cycles of Bach's cantatas were launched by authentic-performance ensembles in the early 2000s, with many of the resulting recordings being marketed as individual discs as well. Why this sudden cornucopia of product focusing on a historically slow-selling segment of the master's output? Could it be the modishness of devotional feeling these days? In any event, the set by the Bach Collegium Japan and its conductor Masaaki Suzuki can stand up to anything else out there, and this release, volume 26 in the series coming out on Sweden's BIS label, makes a good place to step in and sample the series as a whole. The disc contains three cantatas from the year 1724, when Bach undertook to produce a new cantata, based on a chorale or hymn that everyone knew, for every Sunday and Feast Day throughout the year; the first of the three, "Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele, BWV 180" (Adorn yourself, O Soul), is one of Bach's best-loved cantatas. Although the meatier attacks that come naturally to Baroque string players tend to lead to a crisp sound in performances on historical instruments, Suzuki generally coaxes a smooth texture from his Bach Collegium Japan. This is the defining characteristic of his cantata series, and it offers something of a middle ground for listeners who loved the warmth of some of the classic Bach recordings but still want to hear the music on the instruments for which Bach wrote it. Suzuki delves into manuscript sources and offers justifications in his liner notes for the instrumental choices he makes. This is the kind of thing that attracts serious early music fans, and Suzuki has interesting things to say musically. Check out the novel contrast that emerges between the sopranino recorder that dances above the opening chorus of "Herr Christ, der einige Gottessohn, BWV 96" (Lord Christ, God's Only Son) and the transverse flute in the cantata's third movement, for example. Yet in their warm, reverential feel, there's something rather old-fashioned about these readings. The liner notes introduce Bach in the terminology that Albert Schweitzer favored, and it's nice to get back in touch with the bedrock views of Bach's use of religious symbolism and of his basic musical language. If you're hoping to hear what a Japanese accent sounds like in German, you won't find out from this recording; one German reviewer wrote that for the most part, if he hadn't looked at the booklet, he wouldn't have known he wasn't listening to German singers. One of the strongest points of Suzuki's interpretation is that he picked a soprano, Yukari Nonoshita, who fit perfectly with his conception of the soprano arias in these cantatas; she has a masterfully smooth vocal attack that dovetails nicely with the burnished edges of Suzuki's phrasing. The way to find out which version of the Bach cantatas you'll like most is to sample several of them and trust your own reactions. Give a good listen to Suzuki's readings on this disc, however; compared with the brisker versions of a Ton Koopman, they may well represent the feel-good choice. The disc makes less economic sense; however, at a skimpy 53 minutes, it could easily have contained a fourth cantata.