16 October 2019

Disgusted of BIS writes...

As a critic I never set out to shake the prams of record company executives (or artists, for that matter), but when I accentually do, the results can be pretty spectacular.  None, so far, has matched the remarkable hissy fit of Robert von Bahr of BIS records.  He not only threw all his toys out of the pram, but the blankets, pillows and his clothes as well!  This letter goes to the head of my pile of amazing over-reactions;


Dear Mr. Rochester,
while you are obviously entitled to your thoughts, however ill-informed, I would be very grateful, if you checked your facts before going in print with them.

 Firstly you call this a CD.  It isn't - it is an SACD, which, to some people, is an important factor  (yes, I see that you later actually write SACD, which makes it even more confusing).

Then about BIS ecopak.  Here I need to take issue with you, since what you write doesn't amount to any logical reasoning;  rather the contrary as I will show.
- Yes, we have spent a long time on flights to be able to record the organs, Masaaki Suzuki wants to record.  In the end, it is easier to transport us to the organ than the organ to us.

Does this fact, which is quite true, absolve us from the goal of making as little environmental damage as possible?  I find this a most illogical and - frankly - unpleasant way of reasoning, especially in this day and age.  So just because we are necessarily wasteful in one area absolves us from trying our best in another?  Oh dear!!!
- And, then, since you open the box and are talking about flight kilometers:

We produce the entire BIS catalogue new releases in ecopaks now.  We're talking a good 100'000 discs/year now, gradually going up to c. 300'000 in a couple of years, saving c. 42% weight.  Most of our shipments go overseas in either direction, to the same places as our recording personnel, so our numers are entirely comparable.  We are saving c. 45 grammes per SACD.  This means now c. 4'500 kilos in less weight, going up to way past 10'000 kilos/year in the near future.  That is rather more than one person's c. 75 kilo, going the same way, even if you multiply that with our c. 60 recordings/year.  So your reasoning is actually to our favour!

So, Mr. Rochester, if you want to dazzle people with your mathematical reasoning, do think it through to the logical conclusion!  That's what I would call intellectual honesty rather than your snide remark.

 - OK, you don't like the ecopak.  Your privilege.  But don't call them flimsy, because they are NOT.  And, if you don't believe me, take an ordinary jewel case and an ecopak and drop them on the floor.  I'd bet I know which will withstand it and protect the SACD, and which will not.  Add the lesser place on the shelf and the much more beautiful surface, and the fact that the ecopak is made entirely from renewable and ecological sources, whereas the jewel case is made from plastic, and there we are.  If you cannot remove the detachable paper sticker with your nail, something that takes me all of 3 seconds, then why not cut it open with something sharp?
It is one thing to instinctively dislike something new, and quite another to invent unfair reasons for doing so.

I am sorry to be so upset, but, in the end, it is initiatives like the BIS ecopak, in all kinds of walks of life, that will do something tangible to save this planet.  Your review is doing nothing to further that cause.
Robert von Bahr, CEO, BIS records


So, that's me put in my place!

I’m sorry Mr Bahr never got round to that bit of my review (see below) when I commented on the music, the performance and the recording quality, but perhaps record company CEOs have different priorities to critics.  I’m pleased, however, that he praises my mathematical reasoning - having got 17% at my mock Maths O Level, my school forbad me from sitting the real one; how my old maths master would laugh to learn that a company CEO seems impressed with my maths today!
For the record, I have always hated CD plastic jewel cases, and any alternative is welcome.  If the “Bis ecopak” is the way to go, so be it, although even after a month, mine is already beginning to look very tatty.

Feel free to comment – but ONLY after you’ve bought the disc.  It’s really well worth buying and listening to, even if the company’s CEO feels that is not so important.


Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

  • Prelude & Fugue in C. BWV531 [7:30]
  • Fantasia & Fugue in C minor, BWV537 [8:48]
  • Chorale Preludes on “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr‘“, BWV 717, 711 and 715 [8:48]
  • Chorale Partita on “Ach was soll ich Sünder machen?“, BWV770 [12:11]
  • Toccata in C, BWV566a [10:24]
  • Prelude & Fugue in C minor, BWV546 [10:58]
  • Chorale Preludes on “Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend“, BWV 709, 726 [4:24]
  • Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor, BWV582 [14:36]
Masaaki Suzuki (organ)

rec. May 2018, Freiberg Cathedral, Germany

BIS BIS-2421 [79:07]

Denied the obvious choice of presenting Bach’s organ works in any kind of chronological order – although booklet-note writer Albert Clement tries his best to date the works on this disc – Masaaki Suzuki has tried a few tricks to present single disc compilations which are both attractive and coherent in his complete cycle for Bis.  For disc 3 he adopts, as he had for the two previous issues in the series, a mix of chorale-based pieces framed by larger works incorporating fugues.  But he has done something different here; he has fixed the programme tonally on C.  To maintain the C tonality Suzuki includes a C major version of the Toccata in E BWV566 (Clement argues that the two versions are “equally authoritative”, but I have my doubts). Another programming innovation is the inclusion of multiple chorale preludes based on a single chorale. 

A less welcome innovation comes from Bis, who have elected to issue the CD not in a traditional plastic jewel case but in what they trendily describe as a “Bis ecopak”; basically a flimsy cardboard cover held together by an adhesive label of such strength that to get to the CD you have to tear the cover.  A minor irritation, no doubt, but enough to sour the experience of an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable CD.

Since Suzuki is not recording his Bach series in close proximity of both place and time - by my reckoning he (and the Bis team) have already built up a carbon footprint of some 18,000 kms flying between Groningen in The Netherlands (Vol.1), Kobe in Japan (Vol.2) and now on to Freiberg in Germany, and the recordings span some five years – each recording offers something very different in terms of sound and interpretation.  Here, on the magnificent Silbermann organ at Freiberg, Suzuki has such an opulent stoplist and sumptuous acoustic to play with, that he eschews the somewhat flamboyant ornamentation and extravagant tempi of the previous issues.  All of this wonderful sound is superbly caught in this Bis SACD recording.

As for the playing, Suzuki combines stylistic authority and musical insight with a fabulous technical mastery – there are some wonderfully florid flourishes in the third of the Allein Gott Chorale Preludes and some truly dazzling footwork in the youthfully exuberant, if musically meagre, BWV531 Prelude – and while he employs the full resources of this superb 1714 instrument, there is never any hint that registrations are dictated by the sound they produce rather than their musical suitability.

The climax of the disc is certainly the Passacaglia & Fugue, which is perhaps the work which might most attract the casual listener: the organ aficionado will need no enticement for this release other than the knowledge that a masterly Bach interpreter is presiding over a fabulous Bach-era instrument.  Suzuki’s is a vividly imaginative and wonderfully coherent interpretation, which flows easily through a glorious panoply of vivid organ colours.  He combines majesty and wit, strength and subtlety in a performance which is utterly compelling; the icing on the cake of what is a very fine release indeed.

Marc Rochester

As a pure sonic spectacle, Volume three of Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach organ cycle hits new heights, while as a masterly presentation of Bach in and around the tonal centre of C, it is simply peerless.


  1. Dear Mr. Rochester,
    I most certainly did read the rest and was happy about it, needless to say. But, you see,
    I am an environmentalist, and we have let an awful amount of thoughts go into the BIS ecopak, which, incidentally, lest you assume differently, costs a fair bit more than the plastic jewel case, something we absorb ourselves. The only thing I want is to be treated fairly, and your whole attitude is/was: "bloody hell, I cannot bother to get it open, so I rip it", which - for me - is rather foolish. Now you add insult to injury by picturing the ecopak that you have destroyed yourself. In all other aspects you are simply wrong, and when you started your number exercise, something broke inside me. Not only are we using certified ecological cardboard, soy colours, ecoglue and waterbased varnish, we're also saving many tons of weight, being transported to all parts of the globe, thereby saving fuel and transport emissions. I found your tone unwarranted (as probably is mine) and your whole attitude snide and - environmentally speaking - unjustified. A colleague of yours, who shall remain nameless, just wrote in, very upset by your review in this aspect, telling that he/she just had bought another 100 empty jewel cases to replace the ones that had been rendered useless.

    Thank you for the musical part of your review - when it comes to something as close to my heart as the planet we all live on, I reserve the right to react harshly, when someone is unfair to us.

    Robert von Bahr (that's the way my name goes)

    1. It is both rude and offensive to attribute to me thoughts and attitudes I do not hold. To state that I am Ill-informed, merely because you detect (incorrectly) an attitude which runs counter to yours, is hurtful, to put it mildly.

    2. Willem de Vries20 October, 2019 01:08

      Mr Rochester,
      As I read it you and Mr von Bahr have no disagreement about music. So this is a debate about environment impact. I see that you are a trained, experienced and respected commentator on music. Mr von Bahr has not said anything to question your musical knowledge. But I think he has challenged your comments on environment matters.

      I notice from your blog that you (used to) travel extensively as a music examiner, so I interpret that you feel tens or (cumulatively) hundreds of thousands of airmiles were justified so as to listen to and mark graded examinations. Is this wrong ? But your blog doesn’t really talk about environment issues, and I can’t see that you often bring them up, other than to criticise Mr von Bahr.

      You are hurt that Mr von Bahr suggests you are “ill-informed” (on environmental matters). To help your readers understand your feelings, can you confirm whether you are also a trained, experienced and respected expert of environmental matters ? That might be a good way to make clear whether you are well-informed on the matters under discussion here.

      Thank you sir.

      Willem de Vries

    3. This is not a blog about environmental issues. It is a blog about music. So when I am criticized as being "ill-informed" I take it (and your parenthetical addition was not in the original letter and is your interpretation of his words, not mine) I am being described as "ill-informed" about music. I have very strong views on politics, race and gender equality, diet and religion, language and ethics, and on environmental issues. But I imagine my views on these are of monumental disinterest to my readers, who come to this blog to read about music.

    4. Willem de Vries21 October, 2019 22:44

      Mr Rochester,

      Thank you for making your assumptions more explicit.

      I accept your statement that your blog is about music, and that your claim of expertise relates solely to this area.

      The letter from Mr von Bahr that you have posted does not concern music. I have read it again, and it does not even use the word music. It concerns recording location and travel, the features and manufacture of a BIS Ecopak, environment effects, and touches on the nature of a SACD. He begins with a general statement: that you are entitled to your thoughts however ill-informed. I think we can all say the same of anyone. He is, I think the context makes clear, suggesting that your environmental knowledge is ill-informed. And you have agreed that your views of environmental issues are of no particular interest on this blog. So, as you confirmed, on receiving a letter regarding environmental issues, you interpreted it to be a criticism of your musical knowledge. Why such a perverse interpretation ?

      You speak English as a first language, and your writing is subtle, so I think you can tell the difference between the following two statements:
      1) “You are entitled to your thoughts, however ill-informed” and “You are entitled to your thoughts, which are ill-informed”.
      So he doesn’t state that you are ill-informed, he raises is as a possibility, and the rest of the letter elaborates on why. There is no mention of music.
      2) “If you want to dazzle people with your mathematical reasoning…” and “You dazzle people with your mathematical reasoning”.
      Your article says “he praises my mathematical reasoning” – but he doesn’t, because he uses a conditional statement. An experienced writer like you would be aware of that, I think.

      As a reader of your blog, which I usually enjoy so much, I was disappointed that instead of addressing the environmental points he raised, or apologising for the digression that offended, you chose to take the path of mockery and twisting the words. The schoolboy tactic of teasing someone who cares enough to get angry, thereby avoiding the thrust of what they say. It is that very British delight in “pulling down a peg” someone who tries hard to do things well.

      And it seems to me that you then went on to hide behind taking offence. As a self-proclaimed critic, I am surprised you cannot take criticism. In my opinion it does not reflect well on you.

      Thank you sir.

      Willem de Vries

  2. I see a review which calls the ecopak Bio-Degradable, so while the packaging disintegrates the CD remains. What's that all about?

    1. Dear Anonymous,
      The playable life of a CD, before the metal layer with the digital information starts to degrade, is said to be several decades depending on material quality. But the actual polycarbonate CD will not break down for hundreds of years. So, like so many modern products, the pollution will vastly outlast the benefit.

      The packaging of a CD uses about four times as much plastic as the CD itself, and then there is often irritating plastic film wrapping as well. So by replacing the packaging with something that is biodegradable, immediately reduces the long term pollution by 80%. That's got to be a good idea. And full marks to BIS for their ecopacks, and any other label that is doing the same thing.

      If you are old enough to remember LP records, the cover and the inner sleeve were usually cardboard and paper based, so (without really being aware of it) in those days they already had the same solution.

      It is so easy to throw stones. But I respect people like Robert von Bahr - who are actually doing something to reduce environmental impact, as well as making amazingly good CDs (or SACDs).

      Peter Alsop