Renowned Bach scholar and conductor Suzuki with fine baroque ensemble Juilliard415

Masaaki Suzuki & Juilliard415
(Chamber Music New Zealand)

J.S. Bach: Orchestral Suite no.1 in C
Concerto for 2 violins in D minor
Cantata BWV 82a, Ich habe genug
Orchestral Suite no.3 in D

Michael Fowler Centre

Tuesday, 30 May 2017, 7.30pm

It is wonderful for audiences in New Zealand to welcome back Masaaki Suzuki, this time with an ensemble of students from the famous Juilliard School based at the Lincoln Center in New York.   The 18 instrumentalists came from 8 different countries.

Suzuki, as well as running his own choral and orchestral ensembles and teaching in Tokyo, teaches also at Juilliard.  He is a renowned Bach scholar and conductor, and Wellington audiences delighted in his performing with his musicians two Bach concerts in the 2014 Arts Festival.  His Bach Collegium Japan echoes Bach’s Collegium Musicum in Leipzig, for which some of these works were written.

The ensemble was led by Cynthia Roberts, a noted American baroque violinist.  She bowed, as did some of the other musicians, in baroque style, but I could not tell from where I was sitting if period-style string instruments were in use; the bows did not appear to be, and there was nothing in the extensive printed programme to inform the audience on these points, beyond reference to the historical performance program at Juilliard.

Perhaps this is an academic point; the playing under Suzuki’s hands was crisp, pointed and always strongly rhythmic, and undoubtedly historically informed.

The first orchestral suite was one I was not familiar with.  Its various movements, based on dances, numbered 11 (taking into account that there were two Gavottes, two Menuets, two Bourées and two Passepieds).  Bach added so much to these traditional forms; his musical invention made something new out of something old.  Their traditional metres and structures were preserved, making a work that provided great delight to the audience, and doubtless to the musicians also.

The concerto is a delightful three-movement work that provides plenty of challenges to the soloists, and much pleasure to the listeners.  The features of returning phrases (ritornelli) sections for the soloists and the intricate counterpoint made for a work of constant freshness and colour through the three movements: vivace, largo ma non tanto and allegro.  The conversations between the soloists were always full of interest, but I found their tonal qualities distinct from each other, with that of Karen Dekker, who played second violin, more pleasing than the thinner, at times even metallic, sound from Isabelle Seula Lee.  Nevertheless, their performance, and that of the ensemble, was always vigorous, with plenty of dynamic contrasts

The cantata was for me the highpoint of the concert.  It was first performed in Leipzig in 1727 and was written for a bass singer.  It is this version with which I am familiar, having a fine recording of the lovely aria ‘Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen’ with Rodney Macann singing.  Bach did later versions for soprano and alto and substituted the flute for the original oboe.  The soloist, Rebecca Farley, is a Juilliard graduate, and has a lovely and expressive voice.  I felt that some sections of the music were a little low for her, and there, the notes did not carry well through the auditorium.  There was a short section where the soloist got slightly out of time with the players, and needed Suzuki’s particularly close attention.  By and large however, it was a superb rendition, the words beautifully articulated, and the sentiments of the three arias and two recitatives communicated without seeming effort.  A short vocal encore was a reward for the audience’s enthusiasm for the performance.

It was good to have the lights left on in the Michael Fowler Centre so that the printed words, with translations could be read (it doesn’t always happen!).  Throughout, the ensemble’s playing was sympathetic and supportive, the flute (baroque flute) obbligato in this version for soprano being a characterful contribution, from Jonathan Slade.  The programme note stated that this version ‘…retains the unfathomable yet affirming qualities of the original.’

The last work, consisting of five movements (or 7 counting two Gavottes and two Bourées) was more familiar territory.  After the stately Ouverture, came the well-known Air (often mistakenly called ‘Air on the G String’).  It is deservedly popular, its calmly beautiful procession of notes is supremely serene and exudes quiet confidence.  I did miss the brass in the later movements – our ensemble consisted of strings and woodwind plus harpsichord.

The woodwind players at all times made a huge and delicious contribution to the works in which they played.  All the players made a big contribution to a concert of rich music that entranced the audience, but it is perhaps not unfair to credit particularly the guiding hand and ideas of their distinguished conductor.


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