Suzuki's Sacred and Sunny Mozart on SACD

Ah, Carolyn Sampson. Ah, Mozart. Put both of you, along with the Great Mass in c and the marvelously tuneful early motet, Exsultate, jubilate, in the hands of Masaaki Suzuki and the period-instrument Bach Collegium Japan. Then, record it all in 24/96 for a BIS SACD, which you can download in its original format from multiple sites, and the results are pure pleasure.

Sampson first. This early-music soprano, who has now branched out into song—I will review, for San Francisco Classical Voice, her song recital in San Francisco on May 17, and previously gave Fleurs, her song recital on BIS from which the repertoire for her San Francisco recital debut is drawn, a 2016 Stereophile "Record to Die For"—recorded this music in November 2015. Compared to the Exsultate, jubilate she recorded 10 years earlier, with Robert King and The King's Consort (Hyperion), when she was 31, the voice has not changed. If anything, its warmth and sunniness have deepened, while her phenomenally perfect but markedly unpretentious coloratura technique has remained intact.

Listening to Sampson offers hope of a sunny day. There is an innate and endearing contentedness to her voice that leaves you feeling happy to be alive. Even when she's singing sad music, she inspires gratitude for the ability to experience all facets of life with openness and grace.

Suzuki's expertise in Mozart, as with Bach, is well-known. Every tempo seems ideal, with balances between instruments, soloists and chorus (in the Mass; see later) perfectly judged. I thought I knew every note of Exsultate, jubilate, but Suzuki brings out inner voices and contrasting instrumental lines with a clarity rarely encountered on disc. Add BIS's high-resolution engineering, which, thanks to microphone positioning that intentionally captures less resonance than King's, is exceptionally clear and colorful, and you have one delight after another.

The four-movement Exsultate, jubilate, K.165, premiered in 1773, when Mozart turned 17. The soloist was the soprano castrato, Venanzio Rauzzini, who had sung the lead in Mozart's opera, Lucio Silla. Slightly more than six years later, Mozart unveiled a new version of the piece with the castrato Francesco Ceccarelli that had different words in the first two movements, and substituted baroque flute for baroque oboe.

The differences in color between the two versions can be compared on Suzuki's recording, which appends, to the first version in its entirety, the first movement from the revision. As much as I adore the slight piquancy of the oboes, the etheric breathiness of baroque flute provides a delicious alternative. Sampson rises to the occasion, with different embellishments in each version, and a high ending for the later one. Deserving equal praise are sound engineer Jens Braun and mixing engineer Hans Kipfer, whose balance between color, clarity, and ambience is nigh ideal.

Regardless of version, the music is Mozart's at his sunniest. I may have a preference for the slower, undoubtedly inauthentic tempo for the third movement Andante that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf chose for her early mono recording, but Sampson manages to speed things along while conveying the sacred essence of music and text. As for the final "Alleluia," once you hear it, you may join me in whistling it in your sleep. (Actually, I was hearing a duet from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro over and over in my head last night, but that's another story.)

The Great Mass in c, K.427 (1782–83) is known especially for its eight-minute soprano solo, "Et incarnates est." Sampson is one of very few sopranos who can make its exceptionally ornate, long line sound as natural and essential as breath itself. Compare it to a few other versions, and you'll marvel at how simply Sampson sails through its extremely challenging writing.

Although the other soloists have less to sing in the Mass, mezzo-soprano Olivia Vermeulen deserves praise for the exceptional beauty of her voice. The blend with Sampson is ideal. For a touch of heaven—at least the Christian version of same—and a generous helping of joy, this recording is the way to go.

Anon2's picture

My first purchase of the Bach Collegium Japan was a grab-bag collection of choral sections of Bach Cantatas. This CD, also from BIS, is available for less than $10.00.

Another BIS recording of Masaaki Suzuki that I enjoyed is a collection of Bach organ works, volume 2. This recording was made not in Japan but in the Netherlands.

Masaaki Suzuki and his collegium are contributors to the music of Bach. BIS has done a fine job of chronicling their output. To make it better, BIS is on sale this weekend at this site. I'll post links of my two recordings of Masaaki Suzuki on BIS:

I did some more checking this morning. Actually, the issue under review here is also on sale today:

In addition to this review, the recording is a Gramphone Choice.

dalethorn's picture

I've always wanted to be a gear-head, because I like the shiny hardware and feeling of ownership. But at the rate Jason is recommending high-res downloads, I'm having to cut back.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

The SACD sounds great. On my system, I like it better than the download.

PeterMrozik's picture

I was going to give this a listen on Tidal, but I decided to order the SACD and wait until it shows up in a few days. I'm very much looking forward to this - thanks for the great review! I get lots of valuable listening suggestions here and you're a big help in finding outstanding material.

crenca's picture

I think it is revenge for disagreeing with him on MQA... ;)

dalethorn's picture

heh heh

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

this must mean that God's word is manifest through MQA. If only Mozart were here to write about it.

dalethorn's picture

I have to wonder what Mozart heard. Some of the recordings I've purchased that have 'period' in the description sound a little weak, as if the performers or recordists felt that they should have a more humble presentation, due to the smaller ensembles. This one is full-bodied, and those powerful soprano high notes are an audiophile's dream.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Sampson not only sings early music, but also 20th century opera. She recently did Melisande, and got a great review in Opera News. Hence, she has a larger voice than some early music specialists.

I'm told by baroque conductors that we do know a fair amount about the style of singing, including ornamentation, and instrumentalism, and we certainly know the expansive limits of baroque orchestration. I don't recall if the label lists the number of instruments in Suzuki's ensemble. But that, the hall size, and the engineering all contribute to what you're hearing on this recording.

music guy's picture

Please keep posting your are always a such great resource for new (old) music. Sounds wonderful.
Warren and Judy

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Next up, Lou Harrison. A disc that will be released on April 14.

dalethorn's picture

I got the Rapunzel CD - it'll be good to see what's coming in a high-res download.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I didn't realize this was on CD. I saw it at the Cabrillo Music Festival, and was astounded at Lou's ability to compose 12-tone music that was so beautiful and evocative. Lovers of Berg's Wozzeck and Lulu really need to hear it. Lou moved on from atonality, but his time with it, at least as expressed in Rapunzel and the Violin Concerto, was a major success.

More on the Violin Concerto on April 14 or thereabouts, when my review appears.

volvic's picture

Going to go out on a limb here, I have no doubt the sonics are beautiful and the performance fantastic, I have Gardiner and Herrewhege on period instruments both are considered benchmarks. Yes, you can like these and others on authentic instruments but to me those who have ventured into this performance for the first time are doing themselves a great disservice listening to this piece only on period instruments. The Great Mass comes to life with a full modern orchestra, so seek the Fricsay, Sir Colin Davis and even the von Karajan to understand what a beautiful piece the Great Mass truly is, even if it is unfinished. Happy Listening to all!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

After all, Mozart wrote with the sound of period instruments in his head. The implication of your statement is that the Great Mass does not come to life in the voice that Mozart expected it to have or, at least the voice that we believe Mozart expected it to have.

volvic's picture

Thank you for responding. I have been thinking a lot about this lately in particular as I revisit older 70's and 80's recordings on period instruments and compare them to more modern approaches. The key point is that we have elevated these works to a far greater status than simply being performed at weddings or feasts or religious holidays as they were in their day; they are in essence autonomous, eternal and enduring works of art, as such they deserve to be played with the most modern orchestras and best players. These works are timeless now, they possess an ahistorical essense, which do not depend on following a period performance. Just like our equipment strives to bring out the best of early 80's CD's - and has made great strides BTW, so too does playing this music with a modern orchestra brings a warmth and beauty that in most cases period instruments cannot do justice to, nor could be played back in their day. Also and I believe more importantly, the ideal of historical authenticity on period instruments does not necessarily follow from the ideal of serving the composer's performance intentions. Sure when I listen to French Baroque pieces on period instruments they sound right, but not so with later pieces. Mozart composed the piece in his head as you state, but the beauty of sound he imagined was ethereal and outwardly and not limited by how a string instrument sounded in his day, I believe he imagined it probably closer to a modern orchestra. In short, the music matters, not how you play the notes. Many musicologists including conductors (thinking of Solti) made valid concerns of playing some of this music with period instruments. As stated above, the music is an enduring work of art; the score represents the perfect conception of the music, so why go back and play it with a period instrument, if only as an academic exercise. Of course I am generalizing, the Brandenburg Concertos sound lovely and beautiful on period instruments and do so on modern equipment as well, as does the Messiah. If I didn't have so many versions of the Great Mass I would be seeking this performance and I urge everyone to hear it, but after listening if you find it beautiful and are still interested, give a listen to a modern interpretation and judge for yourself. I know if Mozart were alive today he wouldn't be conducting Cosi fan Tutte on period instruments, but would be running to a modern orchestra.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I really appreciate your passionate reply. Ultimately, none of this can be resolved in words, because we're dealing on the level of heart and soul response.

However, some of what you say simply does not hold water. Statements such as "playing this music with a modern orchestra brings a warmth and beauty that in most cases period instruments cannot do justice to" and "I know if Mozart were alive today he wouldn't be conducting Cosi fan Tutte on period instruments, but would be running to a modern orchestra" are insupportable. Such declarations are based on faith, not fact.

I've spent a lot of time listening to period instruments at concerts of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and American Bach Soloists. Many of their players fly to Boston, Portland and other places, as well as Europe, to perform in baroque ensembles. They're some of the star players in early music. I have yet to hear a lack of warmth or beauty in their playing. Nor, given the strong bass foundation of these orchestras, and the excellence of their choruses and soloists, is the sound lean. But I do find the timbres unique, and distinct from those of a modern orchestra.

As for recordings of period instruments, many were made early in the digital era, including a lot of Gardiner's. The more resolving, neutral, and truthful a system is, the worse they will sound. Far too many of them sound thin and shallow, and are lacking in warmth. Those early Harnoncourt recordings on Teldec? Ugh.

Yes, there is a huge difference in interpretive possibilities and weight of sound on harpsichords and fortepianos vs. modern pianos. But does that make one "better" than the other in any absolute sense? I think not.

As for your certainty that Mozart would be running to modern instruments if he were alive today, aren't you projecting just a bit, and painting him in your image?

Let's save the rest of our energy for enjoying the music. There will be many more reviews, and many more opportunities to dialogue.

dalethorn's picture

Some of that logic may be true, but hasn't proven true for classic pipe organ music, as far as I can tell. The so-called mechanical "tracker" organs with their low-pressure pipes sound way better on most organ music - probably most modern organ music as well, compared to the electric-action organs with their higher-wind-pressure pipes. With orchestras there are so many factors that "....all other things being equal" never applies.

volvic's picture

I appreciate your passion and your posts and long may you continue, but in this instance, I will side with Solti.
Kind regards