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Monday, 18 April 2016

Bach Collegium Japan at Saffron Hall (Part II)

This is Part II of a review of Masaaki Suzuki's Bach Collegium Japan at Saffron Hall

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17 April

This is (Part II) of a review of the concert given by Bach Collegium Japan, under its founder Masaaki Suzuki, at Saffron Hall (Saffron Walden, Essex) on Sunday 10 April 2016 at 7.30 p.m.

The last of three pieces in the evening’s all-Bach programme [it was preceded by a short Cantata, in the second half, and, in the first, by a longer one] was :

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) ~ Magnificat (in D Major¹), BWV 243

Masaaki Suzuki brought us a sharp and distinct affect to the familiar opening Sinfonia of Bach’s Magnificat (BWV 243¹), the trumpets suitably clear and celebratory, and with Guy Ferber (the principal player of three) deliberately sounding slightly bright.

The momentum was nicely kept up, and one could see Robin Blaze nodding, and so showing his involvement with, and his commitment to, the work in toto – not unusually, as one can likewise see tenor James Gilchrist (@JamesTenorGilch), staying acclimatized to the ambience of Bach’s music². (As it is, though, do all too many vocal soloists just seem to rise for their aria / duo / recitative in general, and do not necessarily feel part of the whole, but maybe an adornment to it, or a needful addition (as no mortal – not just in amateur choirs – can usually match the demands of Bach’s writing) ?)

Other pleasures from the early movements were :

* Soprano Joanne Lunn adopting a position more upstage than in the Cantata in Part I (to come), and, in terms of projection, with a much better result

* Young Suzuki (Masaaki Suzuki’s (@quovadis166’s) son Masato [@eugenesuzuki]) ‘multi-tasking’, in that he often had – with the instruments arranged at right angles (rather than, as many times seen, one on top of the other) – his left hand occupied with playing a harpsichord, the right, meanwhile, with the chamber organ

* Rachel Nicholls (@raenicholls), alongside soulful tones from Masamitsu San’nomiya (on oboe, plus Suzuki Jnr on harpsichord), who (as one already had good reason to know) was very accomplished, and expressed the text seamlessly

Yet, as to seamlessness (and despite much onward energy - with bassist Frank Coppieters keenly and nimbly fretting the instrument’s bottom string), Suzuki chose not to succeed Nicholls' aria for soprano immediately with the Chorus Omnes generationes³ : rather than running it on, he instead gave it to us as if it were a distinct movement in itself, and so, by his not keeping with the sense of the verse, it ceased to be musically and syntactically dependent on the words of the preceding aria (although it appears to have been meant to be indissolubly so⁴ ?).

In truth, a minor cavil, when one well-known recording of the work (which shall remain unnamed) has the aria Quia fecit (for bass and continuo) resemble little more than a ditty with which one might imagine, as it chugs along, a cheerful and friendly whale amusing itself (partly because of how the part for double-bass is rendered) ! Of course, not the impression that BCJ gave of the movement, one can gladly report, but instead that (as with Joanne Lunn's aria, and in an ensemble full of assurance) Dominik Wörner carried himself with more bearing than in Part I, doing justice to the text. Even more true of counter-tenor Robin Blaze (who had been the soloist in the preceding Cantata - please see below), well matched with tenor Colin Balzer : a confident rendition in Et misericordia, with Blaze especially handling the chromaticism / chromatic writing very well, and with sensitive string-playing in the ripieno.

As required, the following Chorus, Fecit potentiam, was very vigorous, with a good sound from the orchestra, well enhanced by the timpani – and with a glorious moment of suspension (an effect heard again in this work - and which, later in Bach’s canon, we may know superbly used in the Mass in B Minor, BWV 232 ?). We were therefore set up to hear from Balzer’s in the aria Deposuit potentes, for tenor voice : all sounding good, with, at times, organ, bassoon and bass continuo ; at others, with strings that were pert and alive.

Esurientes implevit bonis, the central aria of three that Bach gives us consecutively, brought Blaze back down from the row of members of the Chorus (who were arrayed, at the back, on podia – as when The Sixteen (@TheSixteen) had been heard at Saffron Hall). He was joined by both flautists (who moved their music-stands forward to play standing) :

The very pleasing tone and colour of their transverse instruments was part of an overall effect that was simply charming (even if, theologically, one might question Bach’s setting a text that corresponds to The hungry he has filled with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty⁵, and giving it this mood ?). More surely even than in Vergnügte Ruh (the preceding Cantata), Blaze and the instrumental soloists emphasized the light touches, and Suzuki signalled a deft bom, right at the end. And so into the aria Suscepit [Israel puerum suum], a trio of voices with the two oboes, which suspensively took us into other worlds, as Bach is adept at doing (again, he does so in the Mass in B Minor) !

A contrast was thus pointed with the closing movements for Chorus, first Sicut locutus est, with a strong, firm bass-line (supporting violins and cellos), and then - unlike with the transition to Omnes generationes (please see above) - being taken almost straight into text taken from the liturgy (the doxology of the Gloria (and not from Luke’s Gospel)).

Here, Suzuki had his forces / resources hold back - and with the contribution from the Chorus sounding, perhaps, as of the wings of hovering birds ? Then the timpanist (Thomas Holzinger) entered again – and, in a live performance such as this, seeing a percussionist making ready can, through familiarity coupled with anticipation, heighten that moment. [At this venue, it did with Colin Currie Group's all-Reich concert, but was sometimes less of an aid on the occasion when Eddie Gomez played with Britten Sinfonia...]

After a very momentary caesura, we were into the closing section of the Gloria (Sicut erat in principio), re-energizing us both through the impact of a full and dramatic conclusion, and with our recollection of the rejoiceful tone (jauchzend) with which the Magnificat had begun.

It was evident that everyone was well pleased with the culmination of the concert in the familiar guise of this joyful work, and to have had the Collegium, and Suzukis father and son, in their midst :

The former had been heartily hailed when first seen on stage, and his musicianship and musicality had been relished as heard in the latter, in whom [not least through hearing him beforehand on Radio 3's In Tune programme (@BBCInTune) - from 1:32:33 onwards in the live broadcast on 7 April 2016, and available to listen to for thirty days] a great future seems set to lie...

Bach ~ Cantata : Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV 170

The preceding Cantata had fallen into five movements. It alternates Arien with Rezitativen, and the first has a brief orchestral introduction, in which Masamitsu San’nomiya was now to be observed playing oboe d’amore, before we first caught Robin Blaze’s enviable vocal-tone (he had not performed in Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, the longer Cantata that constituted Part I of the concert).

Not least when he re-entered after a reprise of the initial material, Blaze put the soloists whom we had already heard in the shade – a lucid sound, and full of delight and of life. In the final line, on the word Wohnung (‘dwelling’), he gave a smile, and, after the warm, rich tutti at the close, his face could be seen looking eager at bringing us this text.

In the Rezitativ, and with organ and cello continuo, he continued clear and bright, and using tone-colour with a phrase such as Ach ! diese Schuld ist schwerlich zu verbeten (‘Oh, this guilt is hard to make atonement for !’) [where shown by underscoring]. The second, central Arie started with agreeably reedy / piping organ-notes and strings to the fore in the introduction, and, as the movement developed, the orchestra accompanied Blaze with gestures in the form of brief strokes on the strings.

As we were to hear in the Magnificat, he handled chromatic writing in the setting - e.g. of the words Und Hass (‘And hatred’) - with skill and sensitivity (as also, later, with beautifully executed coloratura). He was matched only by Masato Suzuki’s lovely organ playing : free and rhythmically flexible, according to mood and musical context. Further on, in the kernel of this Cantata, he brought forth from the organ peals and a celebratory ambience, and then we were taken straight into the closing pair of lines (beginning Ach ! ohne Zweifel ['Oh, without doubt [...]']). The tail-piece of the movement was nicely understated, and Blaze listened, quite engaged.

In the second Rezitativ, he was emphatic, confident and full, and – perhaps to a loved one in the audience ? – gave a little wink at one point. He might well have had reason to be pleased, for the whole had cohered, and was to feel ‘of a piece’ to the end :

In the closing Arie, the opening line of a five-line text – Mir ekelt mehr zu leben (‘The idea of living for longer is disgusting to me’) – is to be dwelt on by Bach. In Blaze's interpreting the sung part of the writing to us, we heard more virtuoso organ-playing from Suzuki come to fruition, and to great effect, in chirping organ figures (in an improvisatory style) that he gave to us as the movement resumed da capo.

Perhaps a work that we could more easily relate to than to Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, but certainly one that yielded a performance, built around Robin Blaze and his voice, that was both convincing, and provocative of suggesting that we might heed the theological perspective from Bach’s time and faith...


¹ As other audience members (in from Cambridge Early Music / @CambsEarlyMusic) were 'ahead of the game', and already aware that BWV 243 is (or appears to be) the revision, and transposition, of an original in E Flat Major, BWV 243a.

² E.g. when James Gilchrist splendidly returned [for Easter at King’s 2016 (@ConcertsatKings), on Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week] to give us the Evangelist in the St John Passion (BWV 245).

³ Perhaps there may have been good reasons (better than logistical ones) for not swiftly following the Aria with the Chorus. (Although it could only have been, as one recollects, to allow Rachel Nicholls to resume her place in the Chorus - and, surely, that crux could not have been insurmountable (or that resumption of place need not have been given precedence) ?)

⁴ Since (as borne out by other performances) Wikipedia asserts There is however no numbering of movements in Bach's autographs, nor is there a caesura between the third and the fourth movement : the 25th measure of the Quia respexit (where the soprano soloist sings her last note) is the first measure of the Omnes generationes movement.

(What the work’s Wikipedia page also says about how Bach set the text of the Magnificat, as a whole, is that Each verse of the canticle is assigned to one movement, except verse 48 (the third verse of the Magnificat [sc. of Chapter 1 of The Gospel According to Luke]) which begins with a soprano solo in the third movement [Quia respexit] and is concluded by the chorus in the fourth movement [Omnes generationes], i.e. :

[3rd mvt : Aria] Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent /
[4th mvt : Chorus] omnes generationes)

⁵ Though maybe the Lutheran influence always causes favouring one side of the balance ?

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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