wed 24/07/2024

Bach B Minor Mass, Bach Collegium Japan, Suzuki, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Bach B Minor Mass, Bach Collegium Japan, Suzuki, Barbican

Bach B Minor Mass, Bach Collegium Japan, Suzuki, Barbican

Clarity, colour and detail from Japanese Bach specialists

Masaaki Suzuki: a delicate and subtly nuanced readingMarco Borggreve

Masaaki Suzuki’s reputation precedes him. His recordings of Bach’s choral works with Bach Collegium Japan, the group he founded in 1990, have been arguably the finest of recent decades. But visits to the West, and especially to London, are rare, so this evening’s concert offered a valuable opportunity to find out what the dynamics are within the ensemble, and how they achieve such impressive results on disc.

Unlike many Bach interpreters, Suzuki is a real conductor. He doesn’t play violin or harpsichord when he leads, he actually conducts. He takes an interest in every detail of the music, focussing attention to what he considers the important part at any given moment. Western players could find that stifling, but the predominantly Japanese ensemble responds well to his Confucian approach. There is plenty of freedom and life in the instrumental playing, but always combined with absolute unity of intent.

Singers and audience alike responded to the conductor's clear gestures

Suzuki isn’t awed by the B Minor Mass, and he doesn’t present it as a towering, monolithic edifice. Instead, his approach is more inquisitive, exploring each movement to find its musical potential. Tempos are varied, occasionally fast but more often surprisingly slow. He’s not shy of rubato either, nor steeply terraced dynamics, both of which are often used to impressive structural effect, as in the "Cum Sancto Spiritu", which subtly but perceptibly changes gears from the one phrase to the next. Very legato phrasing rounds off the edges of the period instrument sound in some movements. The opening "Kyrie" was particularly smooth, and slow – an unusual approach, but a clear statement right from the start that Suzuki planned to do things differently.

The liberties of Suzuki’s interpretation are balanced by an orchestral sound that is at the severe end of the period performance spectrum. The string tone is woody, the oboes are narrow toned and the flutes have a husky chiff to their articulation. But there is also impressive variety to the orchestral timbres and playing techniques. That legato string articulation often gives way to a more detached and delicate phrasing for the arias. And the oboe soloist, Masamitsu San’nomiya, brought an impressive range of colours and shades to the obbligato line in "Qui sedes".

A choir of 20 singers, arranged around the back of the orchestra, is relatively large for period performance Bach, but, as with every other aspect of this performance, the numbers contribute tone and nuance rather than power. Their pronunciation was excellent, allowing Suzuki to use the consonants at the ends of lines as cadential devices in their own right. Choral counterpoint was generally clear, but the ear always felt directed, with the conductor bringing out the pertinent lines, singers and audience alike responding to his clear gestures.

Robin BlazeNo weak links among the solo singers, with the most memorable performance from countertenor Robin Blaze (pictured right by Will Unwin). Curiously, he was the only soloist not to participate in the choral singing, but each of his solos was a real highlight, especially the radiant "Agnus Dei". Joanne Lunn gave lyrical and expressive soprano solos that might have sounded out of place in other performances, but which suited the mood that Suzuki had fostered. Soprano Rachel Nicholls, meanwhile, gave more chaste accounts of her solos and ensembles, and proved the ideal complement for Blaze in the "Et in unum Dominum".

But the evening belonged to Suzuki, and the moments of sheer beauty and rare detail that he elicited were almost too numerous to recount. The "Gloria", rendered here as a fleeting dance. The sudden drop in temperature at the start of the "Et incarnatus est". The point near the end of the "Crucifixus" where he held back the full choir and orchestra to let us hear the fragile passacaglia bass line descending in the harpsichord.

If I’ve one complaint, though, it’s the venue. Suzuki’s introspective Bach too often disappears into the gloomy acoustic of the Barbican Hall. This concert is the first in a weekend residency, and events on Saturday take place in Milton Court and St. Giles’ Cripplegate. Audiences there have a better chance to catch all the nuances that make Suzuki’s Bach great. Better still, the group perform at the acoustically superior Saffron Hall in Saffron Walden on Sunday. That could be the ideal environment to experience these delicate and subtly nuanced readings. 

  • This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available to listen on demand for 30 days


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