Coming Soon: Box Set of Masaaki Suzuki’s Recordings of Bach’s Complete Sacred Cantatas

Suzuki bachI’ve written about Bach’s cantatas several times here (such as this overview article), and there are a handful of conductors whose recordings are essential. One is John Eliot Gardiner, and another is Masaaki Suzuki. Both of these conductors have recorded all the sacred cantatas, and both of their cycles are excellent in different ways. Gardiner’s recordings were made during a live, world-wide tour; Suzuki’s were made in concert halls. While the former are a bit ragged at times, the latter can sound over-polished. (My favorite Bach cantata conductor is Philippe Herreweghe, but he didn’t record all he cantatas, alas.)

Suzuki’s set was long available only on single CDs (though several smaller boxes of the first few dozen CDs were sold for a limited time), but a complete box set will finally be released in April. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) It is currently listed on Amazon UK, but will probably show up on Amazon.com in the coming weeks. At less than £200 for 55 CDs, this is a bargain, though substantially more expensive than the Gardiner set (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

It’s worth noting the following:

This boxed set includes 55 Hybrid SACDs in individual slip cases. The recordings on discs 1-27, originally released on CD, have been up sampled and surround sound has been added, making this the only available complete set of the cantatas in SACD format.

I’m not a fan of upsampling or faux surround sound (where the music is played over speakers in a hall, then recorded with multiple channels). Personally, I don’t care about the SACD layer, and the discs will include a stereo layer as well.

If you’re a fan of this music, and you don’t own the individual CDs, this is a must-have set. The clarity and detail in these recordings is exceptional.

20 thoughts on “Coming Soon: Box Set of Masaaki Suzuki’s Recordings of Bach’s Complete Sacred Cantatas

  1. I have spent a lifetime listening to Bach cantatas; I have most of the sets on the go, and some that aren’t. A day doesn’t go by without a Bach cantata in the house. The indispensable set for me is Harnoncourt’s, which has a sound world that Bach would recognize: boy’s voices, smaller ensembles, engagement. Gardiner and Herreweghe are overly professional: had Bach wanted female sopranos to sing his music, he would have written different music. Gardiner is slick, but I sense no heart there. Herreweghe’s sound is too soft-grained, to the point of being unconsciously irritating, though his conducting is not as breathless nor his performers as self-conscious as Gardiner’s. I like Suzuki: he always seems to find the right pace, and he rarely misses the beauty in most of the pieces. His performers are ones often found in other sets, and are almost uniformly good, though I miss having a boys’ choir, which fits the music organically. It’s hard to describe this kind of rightness, a umami. There is another set using boys and men, the Brilliant and incredibly cheap version of the Zwolle boys’ choir, but this isn’t as acceptable as Harnoncourt/Leonhardt’s. The recording of the boys seems to take place in a tunnel, and the soloists include a female soprano. She’s good, but why use her? Some of the soloists are interesting, particularly the bass. Harnoncourt alone, though, of them all makes me wonder at the music, its difficulty, its originality. The others are studio, over-professional productions, as far away from Leipzig as you can get.

    • I tend to find the Leonhardt/Harnoncourt set too dry, and the boy sopranos aren’t good enough. Sure, it’s more authentic, but there’s a lack of emotion in those recordings. To be fair, I haven’t listened to them in a long time, so I will go back and spin a few today. As with most people, it was the first complete set I had, and I bought it in the very long box edition when it was first released on CD.

      As for the Leusink set on Brilliant Classics, there are too many problems with the recording, the musicianship, and the singing to make it worth listening to. I think that the female soprano is not up to snuff for that music.

      You didn’t mention Rilling, who I find too lush, too overly “romantic,” even though there are some excellent singers in his set.

      Yet let’s just take a moment to realize how lucky we are to have so much choice. And in addition to these complete sets, there are a number of individual cantata recordings that are beautiful as well.

  2. I have spent a lifetime listening to Bach cantatas; I have most of the sets on the go, and some that aren’t. A day doesn’t go by without a Bach cantata in the house. The indispensable set for me is Harnoncourt’s, which has a sound world that Bach would recognize: boy’s voices, smaller ensembles, engagement. Gardiner and Herreweghe are overly professional: had Bach wanted female sopranos to sing his music, he would have written different music. Gardiner is slick, but I sense no heart there. Herreweghe’s sound is too soft-grained, to the point of being unconsciously irritating, though his conducting is not as breathless nor his performers as self-conscious as Gardiner’s. I like Suzuki: he always seems to find the right pace, and he rarely misses the beauty in most of the pieces. His performers are ones often found in other sets, and are almost uniformly good, though I miss having a boys’ choir, which fits the music organically. It’s hard to describe this kind of rightness, a umami. There is another set using boys and men, the Brilliant and incredibly cheap version of the Zwolle boys’ choir, but this isn’t as acceptable as Harnoncourt/Leonhardt’s. The recording of the boys seems to take place in a tunnel, and the soloists include a female soprano. She’s good, but why use her? Some of the soloists are interesting, particularly the bass. Harnoncourt alone, though, of them all makes me wonder at the music, its difficulty, its originality. The others are studio, over-professional productions, as far away from Leipzig as you can get.

    • I tend to find the Leonhardt/Harnoncourt set too dry, and the boy sopranos aren’t good enough. Sure, it’s more authentic, but there’s a lack of emotion in those recordings. To be fair, I haven’t listened to them in a long time, so I will go back and spin a few today. As with most people, it was the first complete set I had, and I bought it in the very long box edition when it was first released on CD.

      As for the Leusink set on Brilliant Classics, there are too many problems with the recording, the musicianship, and the singing to make it worth listening to. I think that the female soprano is not up to snuff for that music.

      You didn’t mention Rilling, who I find too lush, too overly “romantic,” even though there are some excellent singers in his set.

      Yet let’s just take a moment to realize how lucky we are to have so much choice. And in addition to these complete sets, there are a number of individual cantata recordings that are beautiful as well.

  3. All the cantatas were available in five limited-edition budget box sets, stereo-CD only. These included the original “liner notes”.

    I don’t know how BIS added surround tracks to the first 27 recordings. However, for more than 25 years I’ve used a JVC hall synthesizer to add ambience channels through additional speakers. (The original recording, mono or stereo, plays unmodified through the front speakers.) Used correctly, it sounds no more- or less-faux than “real” ambience.

    • No, there were only 4 box sets with 10 discs each, covering the first 40 volumes:

      http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Performers/Suzuki-Rec6.htm

      As for the surround sound, my guess is they played it back in a studio with a number of microphones, and recorded it. This is how this is usually done when there is no original surround sound mix. I’d say it probably sounds better to play it through your device; though maybe they do it that way now as well to create the surround sound mixes.

      • Actually, there were five. I have #5 in front of me, BIS-9052. It has disks 41 through 53.

        These sets have become rare and expensive. I should have waited, but… If the price ever drops below $150, I might buy the big set. (By the way, I take a certain perverse pleasure in the Brilliant set, for the raw, somewhat amateurish performances. I wonder if JSB heard it that way.)

        Both JVC and Yamaha produced hall synthesizers (XP-A1000 & DSP-3000) that modeled specific halls. I reviewed them for “Stereophile”. The JVC is the better of the two, principally because it doesn’t model early reflections arriving from the orchestra’s location (as the recording presumably includes them); allows a choice of “point” or “spread” reverb; and has all its controls on the front panel.

        Such devices ought to be part of any serious listener’s system, but those with no appreciation of live. acoustic music reject them as gimmicky, when they’re an absolute necessity. To paraphrase Karl Mauldin: “I don’t listen in my home without one.”

        I’m going to contact Herr Behr and find out how it was done.

        • Interesting. I recall Robert saying, back when those boxes were released, that there wouldn’t be a fifth box. Do ask him how the surround mix was done.

          I’ve always felt that those hall synthesizers were just applying some sort of faux surround sound. Are they really that good? I’m not sure I’d want to use something like that, but on the other hand, if they are good, then it would be interesting. I could hear the Grateful Dead as they would sound in the Concertgebouw. 🙂

          I just did some searching, and I can’t find many places that sell those gizmos.

          Also, is it the same thing that’s in my Yamaha AV amplifier? It has a number of sound programs that they call “stereoscopic sound fields.” Some are things like Hall in Vienna…

          • I’ve written Herr Behr. I’ll let you know if he or someone else has an answer.

            Strictly speaking, all ambience is “faux”, as hall reverberation doesn’t exist in nature. That said… With respect to single and two-channel recordings, there are two approaches to obtaining enhanced ambience.

            One way is to extract it. This can be done by placing speakers to the side of the listener, and sending the program through them with a 20ms (or thereabouts) delay. This “unmasks” the ambience in the recording. You can also send the L-R difference signal (with or without delay) to side or rear speakers. The difference signal reduces in-phase components, while enhancing random-phase components. It works fairly well. (I bought two #703 extension speakers in 1970 and added it to my KLH 11 FM.)

            Surround decoders can do a better job. The Tate SQ decoder is fair, the Sansui VarioMatrix QS decoder better, and an Ambisonic UHJ decoder beats both of them. (I tested them all some years ago.) The problem (as with the use of a difference signal or delay) is that the quality of the enhancement is wholly dependent on the recording, And surround decoders require the source material to pass through the decoder, potentially degrading it.

            A well-designed hall synthesizer resolves these problems. Both the JVC and the Yamaha model specific halls, based on on-site measurements. (Though none is named, #1 on both units appears to be the Concertgebouw.) Whether they’re accurate; I don’t know. But switching from one to another plainly reveals differences in the halls.

            Each model can be varied, by adjusting its parameters values. The synthesized hall can be larger or smaller, have different decay properties, etc, etc, etc — billions and billions of combinations. Ideally, you should adjust the synthesizer so its ambience matches the ambience of the recording. (This is easy to do, as the brain is already wired to make such adjustments.) In practice, it’s not usually needed.

            If anyone is wondering… Hall synthesizers do not produce absurd hyper-reverberant effects, unless deliberately misadjusted. Properly set (which is easy to do), most listeners won’t even notice the ambience — until you shut it off.

            Perhaps the most-amazing thing about these units is their effect on old mono recordings. It knocks about a decade off the sound. (Try Walter’s mono “DLvdE”.) They sometimes start sounding like stereo, which suggests that what makes stereo “sound good” isn’t directionality, but the introduction of lateral sound.

            Nobody sells these gizmos, because “purist” listeners — who think nothing of paying thousands of dollars for phonograph playback — consider them gimmicks.

            There’s a JVC currently on eBay. You might want to look at it.

            http://www.ebay.com/itm/JVC-XP-A1000-Vintage-Digital-Acoustics-Processor-Clean-/272246210145?hash=item3f63237e61:g:fk0AAOSwP~tW6Cb9

            I have two, because I can’t imagine listening without it.

            Yamaha apparently uses some sort of hall synthesis in its AV receivers. If the synthesized ambience plays /only/ through the side/rear speakers, you might like it. But if it comes through the front speakers… Uh-uh. It really messes up the sound.

            • Thanks, that explains why mine doesn’t sound good. I have a 3.1 system, no side or back speakers. I’m moving to a new house soon, and maybe I’ll add more speakers. I’ll have a living room that is large enough..

  4. All the cantatas were available in five limited-edition budget box sets, stereo-CD only. These included the original “liner notes”.

    I don’t know how BIS added surround tracks to the first 27 recordings. However, for more than 25 years I’ve used a JVC hall synthesizer to add ambience channels through additional speakers. (The original recording, mono or stereo, plays unmodified through the front speakers.) Used correctly, it sounds no more- or less-faux than “real” ambience.

    • No, there were only 4 box sets with 10 discs each, covering the first 40 volumes:

      http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Performers/Suzuki-Rec6.htm

      As for the surround sound, my guess is they played it back in a studio with a number of microphones, and recorded it. This is how this is usually done when there is no original surround sound mix. I’d say it probably sounds better to play it through your device; though maybe they do it that way now as well to create the surround sound mixes.

      • Actually, there were five. I have #5 in front of me, BIS-9052. It has disks 41 through 53.

        These sets have become rare and expensive. I should have waited, but… If the price ever drops below $150, I might buy the big set. (By the way, I take a certain perverse pleasure in the Brilliant set, for the raw, somewhat amateurish performances. I wonder if JSB heard it that way.)

        Both JVC and Yamaha produced hall synthesizers (XP-A1000 & DSP-3000) that modeled specific halls. I reviewed them for “Stereophile”. The JVC is the better of the two, principally because it doesn’t model early reflections arriving from the orchestra’s location (as the recording presumably includes them); allows a choice of “point” or “spread” reverb; and has all its controls on the front panel.

        Such devices ought to be part of any serious listener’s system, but those with no appreciation of live. acoustic music reject them as gimmicky, when they’re an absolute necessity. To paraphrase Karl Mauldin: “I don’t listen in my home without one.”

        I’m going to contact Herr Behr and find out how it was done.

        • Interesting. I recall Robert saying, back when those boxes were released, that there wouldn’t be a fifth box. Do ask him how the surround mix was done.

          I’ve always felt that those hall synthesizers were just applying some sort of faux surround sound. Are they really that good? I’m not sure I’d want to use something like that, but on the other hand, if they are good, then it would be interesting. I could hear the Grateful Dead as they would sound in the Concertgebouw. 🙂

          I just did some searching, and I can’t find many places that sell those gizmos.

          Also, is it the same thing that’s in my Yamaha AV amplifier? It has a number of sound programs that they call “stereoscopic sound fields.” Some are things like Hall in Vienna…

          • I’ve written Herr Behr. I’ll let you know if he or someone else has an answer.

            Strictly speaking, all ambience is “faux”, as hall reverberation doesn’t exist in nature. That said… With respect to single and two-channel recordings, there are two approaches to obtaining enhanced ambience.

            One way is to extract it. This can be done by placing speakers to the side of the listener, and sending the program through them with a 20ms (or thereabouts) delay. This “unmasks” the ambience in the recording. You can also send the L-R difference signal (with or without delay) to side or rear speakers. The difference signal reduces in-phase components, while enhancing random-phase components. It works fairly well. (I bought two #703 extension speakers in 1970 and added it to my KLH 11 FM.)

            Surround decoders can do a better job. The Tate SQ decoder is fair, the Sansui VarioMatrix QS decoder better, and an Ambisonic UHJ decoder beats both of them. (I tested them all some years ago.) The problem (as with the use of a difference signal or delay) is that the quality of the enhancement is wholly dependent on the recording, And surround decoders require the source material to pass through the decoder, potentially degrading it.

            A well-designed hall synthesizer resolves these problems. Both the JVC and the Yamaha model specific halls, based on on-site measurements. (Though none is named, #1 on both units appears to be the Concertgebouw.) Whether they’re accurate; I don’t know. But switching from one to another plainly reveals differences in the halls.

            Each model can be varied, by adjusting its parameters values. The synthesized hall can be larger or smaller, have different decay properties, etc, etc, etc — billions and billions of combinations. Ideally, you should adjust the synthesizer so its ambience matches the ambience of the recording. (This is easy to do, as the brain is already wired to make such adjustments.) In practice, it’s not usually needed.

            If anyone is wondering… Hall synthesizers do not produce absurd hyper-reverberant effects, unless deliberately misadjusted. Properly set (which is easy to do), most listeners won’t even notice the ambience — until you shut it off.

            Perhaps the most-amazing thing about these units is their effect on old mono recordings. It knocks about a decade off the sound. (Try Walter’s mono “DLvdE”.) They sometimes start sounding like stereo, which suggests that what makes stereo “sound good” isn’t directionality, but the introduction of lateral sound.

            Nobody sells these gizmos, because “purist” listeners — who think nothing of paying thousands of dollars for phonograph playback — consider them gimmicks.

            There’s a JVC currently on eBay. You might want to look at it.

            http://www.ebay.com/itm/JVC-XP-A1000-Vintage-Digital-Acoustics-Processor-Clean-/272246210145?hash=item3f63237e61:g:fk0AAOSwP~tW6Cb9

            I have two, because I can’t imagine listening without it.

            Yamaha apparently uses some sort of hall synthesis in its AV receivers. If the synthesized ambience plays /only/ through the side/rear speakers, you might like it. But if it comes through the front speakers… Uh-uh. It really messes up the sound.

            • Thanks, that explains why mine doesn’t sound good. I have a 3.1 system, no side or back speakers. I’m moving to a new house soon, and maybe I’ll add more speakers. I’ll have a living room that is large enough..

  5. “If you’re a fan of this music, and you don’t own the individual CDs, this is a must-have set. The clarity and detail in these recordings is exceptional.”

    I am big fan of this music. You can count on that. But for me the sound quality is the horror on the Suzuki recordings. Just to much room ambiance. Exactly the opposite of clarity as the writer here claims. The voices go “under” all the time. I do not understand a word of the singers and German is my native language. The singers are to far away from the mic. I know its popular these days or at least for at least three decades. But this one is the worst I ever heard. I call the recording quality a cultural disaster as I really like the approach of Suzuki.

    • That’s interesting. I know what you mean; the sound is sort of “sumptuous,” with a bit too much reverb; I prefer the immediacy of the sound on the Gardiner recordings. (Or the near perfection of the sound on Herreweghe’s recordings.)

  6. “If you’re a fan of this music, and you don’t own the individual CDs, this is a must-have set. The clarity and detail in these recordings is exceptional.”

    I am big fan of this music. You can count on that. But for me the sound quality is the horror on the Suzuki recordings. Just to much room ambiance. Exactly the opposite of clarity as the writer here claims. The voices go “under” all the time. I do not understand a word of the singers and German is my native language. The singers are to far away from the mic. I know its popular these days or at least for at least three decades. But this one is the worst I ever heard. I call the recording quality a cultural disaster as I really like the approach of Suzuki.

    • That’s interesting. I know what you mean; the sound is sort of “sumptuous,” with a bit too much reverb; I prefer the immediacy of the sound on the Gardiner recordings. (Or the near perfection of the sound on Herreweghe’s recordings.)

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