Academy of Ancient Music/Suzuki, St John's, Smith Square, London

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The Independent Culture

It is, of course, his rapturously received ongoing project to record the complete Bach cantatas, with his Bach Collegium Japan on the BIS label, that has carried the reputation of Masaaki Suzuki round the world. But, although he was born in Japan, Suzuki received his training in period performance in the distinctive Dutch tradition, pioneered by Gustav Leonhardt and carried forward by such musicians as Suzuki's teacher Ton Koopman.

This was evident in his direction from the harpsichord of the Academy of Ancient Music in Bach's Orchestral Suite No 1 in C Major BWV1006, with which they opened this concert at St John's, Smith Square. There was none of the driving hastiness of all too many hard-line British authenticists. Rather, there was a recognition that, unfolded without exaggeration or mannerism, baroque music can still yield a world of nuances. The warmly caressing phrasing of the second minuet was especially memorable.

Suzuki also proved a flexible and lively soloist in the Concerto in D major for harpsichord BWV1054. What was most remarkable about this rendition, however, was how the AAM strings kepttheir accompaniments to an intent hush in deference to the modest volume of the baroque harpsichord, without loss of rhythmic incisiveness and impetus.

Two solo church cantatas completed the programme, featuring the distinguished, young French counter-tenor Pascal Bertin - though the tessitura of the first of these lay a little too low for him to reveal his full artistry. This was the remarkable Cantata "Widerstehe doch dere Sünde'" BWV54 ("Stand firm against sin"), a dramatic recitative denouncing sensuous appearances as the "apples of Sodom", flanked by two arias. Suzuki seemed especially to relish the pulsating first of them, each chord scrunching with sinful dissonances; the second, with its scurrying chromatic canons, scarcely less so.

Bertin sounded happier in the wider-ranging Cantata "Geist und Seele wird verwirret" BWV35 ("Spirit and Soul are bewildered"), particularly the first aria with its dramatically distrait pauses, though elsewhere he still sounded a mite uneven. The most striking aspect of this redemptive sequence on God's saving grace, however, is its extensive use of organ obligato, eloquently unfolded by Suzuki; indeed, the substantial instrumental preludes to its first and second parts suggested movements of a lost organ concerto.

The final aria, looking forward to heavenly life in a sprightly minuet, neatly tied up the subtext of this programme, which was to suggest that Bach's activities as a sober church musician and a secular giver of fashionably galant concerts were routinely intertwined. Watch out - or, rather, "Listen up!", as the current BBC Festival of Orchestras 2004 slogan keeps enjoining us - for its future relay on Radio 3.

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