Bach Collegium Japan leaves audience wanting much more after Bach Lutheran masses

Bach Collegium Japan, soloists from the choir, directed by Masaaki Suzuki

Johann Sebastian Bach:
Sinfonia from Cantata Am abend aber desselbigen Sabbats BWV 42
Lutheran Mass in A, BWV 234
Lutheran Mass in G minor, BWV 235

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 6 March 2014, 7.30pm

The magical performance by the Bach Collegium Japan under its inspiring Director, Masaaki Suzuki, left one wanting more.  Indeed, the Festival programme led us to believe we would get more, listing the duration as “2hrs 20mins (no interval)” despite an Interval being listed just above that.  However, it was not to be.  The concert lasted one hour and 40 minutes, including an interval.

Compared with the previous evening’s St. John Passion, this was unfamiliar music.  An extraordinary fact about the Lutheran Masses is that most of the music was adapted from the composer’s cantata movements, where the words would have been in German.  To reconstruct them with words with different syllables and emphases must have been quite a task.

Before the choral works, we were treated to the Sinfonia from the Cantata BWV 42.  This was lively, cheerful music, made more so by the sound of the period instruments (and bows) employed: initially, strings and chamber organ, later joined by oboes and a bassoon.  There were no flutes in this piece.  After it, conductor Suzuki invited applause especially for the wonderful woodwind playing.

Suzuki told us in his lunchtime talk on Wednesday that original instruments restrict the player to the appropriate style for the music of their period.  He suggested that the beauty of the movements selected by Bach was probably the reason for their reuse in the Lutheran Masses.

All nineteenth and twentieth century composers were influenced by Bach, he said.  In Suzuki’s eyes, Bach’s compositions were a work of God.  He found Bach his home, whereas conducting Stravinsky and Mahler (as he does) were like going on a picnic.

The choir entered; only 18 singers, comprising four sopranos, two female altos and two counter-tenors, five tenors and five basses.  For the Lutheran Mass BWV 234, there were no oboes, but two transverse wooden flutes, played standing.

With the opening Kyrie, one was immediately struck by the choir’s clarity, attack, and distinct consonants.  The following Gloria was a delightfully bright movement, the tenor solo at ‘Adoramus te, glorificamus te’ featuring a gorgeous tenor solo from Gerd Türk, in which even tone throughout the range was notable.

The four soloists were all non-Japanese: the soprano was Joanne Lunn (English), the counter-tenor, Clint van der Linde (South African), tenor Gerd Türk (German), and bass Peter Koolj, (Dutch).

A bass aria followed: ‘Domine Deus, Rex cœlestis’.  The bass’s voice had great richness, yet everything was enunciated and delivered clearly.  The accompanying violin solo from orchestra leader Ryo Terekado was beautifully phrased, and delivered with warm tone, yet the playing was incisive.

It was next the soprano’s turn, with the two flutes, in ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’.  Here was more incisive performance, yet Joanne Lunn made the performance dramatic, including not being able to resist some hand gestures.  The singer used little vibrato, but employed ornaments, which reminds me of a lovely story told by Maasaki Suzuki at his lunchtime talk.  He said that when he went to Belgium to study organ, after first learning the instrument in Japan, he began with the famous Ton Koopman.
Koopman encouraged his pupils to create ornaments in profusion, in baroque music.  Following study with him, Suzuki had lessons from another well-known Dutch organist, Piet Kee.  The latter decried all the ornaments, and told Suzuki to get rid of them!

The flutes were quite delicious in the ‘Qui tollis’, and a large section of the orchestration was for them, with violas and second violins.  The effect, and the playing, was of sublime loveliness.

Joyous, reassuring music followed in the counter-tenor’s solo ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’.  Graceful long lines and superb quiet singing made this movement perhaps the most beautiful of all.

It was followed by the chorus singing the final movement ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’.  Here, the flutes did not sound out very well in the Michael Fowler Centre acoustic when all the choir and orchestra were holding forth – but when you could hear them, they were exquisite.

We were in for an unprogrammed treat after the Interval: a movement from a Bach cantata (sung in German), for counter-tenor, with two violins, cello, and chamber organ (played by the maestro himself, whereas in the other works it was played by Masato Suzuki – the maestro’s son?).  The spare sound, in contrast to what we had heard before, was delightful – enhanced by the gut strings (though the difference these make is less noticeable from the cellos).

The singer’s expressive voice, varied dynamics, and greater level of communication with the audience than that of some of the other soloists, made for a fine performance, much appreciated by the large (but not full) audience.

The choir and remaining orchestra came on for the Lutheran Mass in G minor. The Lutheran Masses set only the Kyrie and Gloria, not the full Mass, but the sections of the Gloria set differed between the two Masses. The opening Kyrie of this second one featured the oboes again.  Their sound had bite, yet was mellifluous.  The flowing, interweaving lines were wonderful to hear.

The Gloria chorus was marked by quite detached notes, unlike the Gloria in the previous Mass.  Throughout both works, the pronunciation of words by the choir was uniform and precise, with excellent Latin syllables – no ‘tay’ for ‘te’ or ‘dayo’ for ‘Deo’.  The choir delivered a strong tenor line on the words ‘Laudamus te, benedicimus te’.

The bass aria ‘Gratias agimus’ (the latter pronounced with a hard g) accompanied by violins and a continuo consisting of organ, two cellos, bassoon and double bass, was outstanding, and was followed by the counter-tenor singing ‘Domine fili unigenite Jesu Christe’.  This was very florid setting, with wonderful soaring notes, and somewhat pastoral in its effect.

No soprano solo this time; the last solo was from the tenor, whose warm and expressive voice, clear consonants and effective suspensions were accompanied by an incisive solo oboe.

The final chorus, ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ gave parts of the choir the chance to shine, especially a good bass lead part-way through, followed by strong sopranos.  This was a triumphant sound, with strength from both singers and instrumentalists, especially the cellos and double bass, whose parts echoed the opening of the previous mass.

The soloists’ inconspicuous moving from choir to the front of the platform and back again was a feature that meant little disruption to the music or to the visual presentation.  The choir stood throughout their performances.

The precision, accuracy, balance, tone and musicality of the ensemble made a lasting impression on everyone I spoke to; this was an outstanding contribution to the Arts Festival, and an uplifting experience for all who were present.