Johann Sebastian Bach technically only has one setting of the Magnificat, which he composed twice, the E flat major incarnation for Christmas Day in 1723, and its D major sister for the Visitation Feast of the B.V.M. a decade later. It is the latter version that has become a frequently recorded repertory standard, and is the one heard here. As this work only runs about 30 minutes, the Bach Magnificat always has to be combined with something else. Masaaki Suzuki differentiates his recording from the rest of the pack through filling it out with a unique and useful repertory. Instead of Vivaldi's Gloria or other Bach cantatas, it is the rare Magnificat of Bach's predecessor at the Thomaskirche, Johann Kuhnau, and two settings by his contemporary Jan Dismas Zelenka. Of these, only Zelenka's Magnificat in D major has been previously recorded, and Kuhnau's setting of the Magnificat is his only surviving sacred work that calls for larger forces than a cantata. Zelenka's Magnificat in C major is a real find, a meltingly beautiful setting that will make you wonder why Zelenka's sacred music isn't better known.
These performances are simply outstanding. A mere generation ago the very idea of a Japanese group that was capable of providing top quality performances of Baroque music would've seemed like a joke to many. But Suzuki and his group are really among the best in the world. Part of his success is due to his excellent taste in soloists; check out soprano Miah Persson in the early parts of the Zelenka Magnificat in C. While she gets up in the range that a soprano needs to be in and her tone floats like it should, it retains a "wine-dark" quality that gives it weight and color. Another aspect in Suzuki's favor is that the tempi never drag -- this is a Bach Magnificat that really gets up and goes when it comes to the loud, exciting parts. One interesting difference between the music of Bach and that of his contemporaries becomes clear when one listens -- with Bach's setting of the Magnificat all of sudden the text is front and center, whereas with Kuhnau and Zelenka it tends to take a back seat to the glorious music that they write. Bach could deliver the text and music in equal measure, and that's one thing that sets him apart from even his most gifted associates.