Bach Collegium Japan and Masaaki Suzuki shows worldwide appeal of the Baroque master’s work in their performance for The Friends of Chamber Music and the Performing Art Series at Johnson County Community College.
Japan-born Masaaki Suzuki may seem an unlikely hero to fans of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose works form the central canon of German Baroque repertoire in Western music. But Suzuki and his mostly Japanese ensemble have been fixtures in the world of Bach over the last 25 years owing to the thoroughly Western training of the harpsichordist/conductor (he studied with Ton Koopman, a Baroque specialist, in Amsterdam) and his obvious passion for this music.
For The Friends of Chamber Music and Performing Arts Series at Johnson County Community College concert on Friday, Suzuki chose four works from four different eras of Bach’s career. The concert opened with theBrandenburg Concerto No. 5, the least heavily orchestrated of the great Brandenburgs, requiring only a transverse flute (a first for Bach), violin, and harpsichord, plus strings. Suzuki took it at a furious pace, beginning with a breathtaking Allegro featuring a spectacular harpsichord cadenza which elicited gasps from the audience members at Yardley Hall. In this instrumentation, it is the harpsichord rather than the woodwinds or brass which has the really flamboyant moments. After a slower Affettuoso movement, almost stately by contrast, the group finished with a flashy Allegro, which was quite sprightly and danceable.
Suzuki then brought onstage oboist Masamitsu San’nomiya for a performance of the Concerto in A Major for Oboe d’amore, featuring a Baroque oboe d’amore, which is pitched between an oboe and English horn. After a metronomic Allegro, Suzuki allowed the soloist ample room for a plaintive and moving performance of the Larghetto before charging into a daunting Allegro to finish the piece. Dynamic contrasts were lacking, although admittedly those are difficult to achieve with a Baroque-era instrument, but the soloist demonstrated impressive technique and musicality.
In the concert’s second half, Suzuki turned to works from later phases of Bach’s career, the Trio Sonata in C Minor from The Musical Offering penned in honor of Frederick the Great of Prussia, and excerpts from theCantata No. 199, “Meine Herze schwimmt im Blut,”one of the many dozens of cantatas that Bach composed for services at his musical home, the famous St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.
As the excellent program notes pointed out, the “Trio” of the Trio Sonata is actually two solo instruments, the transverse flute (Frederick the Great was an avid flutist) and violin, accompanied by the continuo or harpsichord. All three are given prominent place in this composition, but at times it often sounds like an extended duet for transverse flute and violin with accompaniment. Suzuki’s forces gave it an elegant, precise performance, with the spectacular six-part fugal work of Bach often sounding like the musical equivalent of a tennis match as melodies and themes are batted back and forth among the players at a blistering pace. Cellist Emmanuel Balssa joined Suzuki, oboist San’nomiya (covering the flute part) and violinist Ryo Terakado for this performance.
To finish the program, Suzuki brought soprano Joanne Lunn to the stage for one of Bach’s many cantatas, this one designed for relatively small forces, a single singer and seven instrumentalists. Consisting of alternative recitatives and arias, the cantata’s text is from the Book of Luke. For the most part, the performance was precise and understated, but the ensemble seemed enlivened during the extensive and beautiful oboe solo at the end of the second aria (“Stumme Seufzer, stille Klagen”) and the soaring vocal phrases in the aria “Tief gebucket und voller Reue.”
The one movement labeled “Chorale,” appearing near the end of the cantata, permitted a warmly rendered viola solo by ensemble member Mika Akiha, and the cantata ended with the only section really permitting any vocal pyrotechnics, an aria called “Wie freudig ist mein Herz,” with soprano Lunn demonstrating dazzling technical virtuosity and the entire ensemble performing with zest.
After a rich and warm ovation requiring multiple bows, Suzuki and the group performed a single encore, an “Amen” from an unidentified (from the stage) cantata which put on full display Bach’s immense talents in fugal composition, a fitting ending for a concert of works by the greatest of all Baroque fugal composers.