Bach Collegium Japan / Suzuki, Barbican, London
Monday 05 June 2006
Japan has long been a principal market for Western classical music. In the Thirties, stars such as Heifetz, Feuermann and Rubinstein were regular visitors. The Japanese appetite for the Baroque was highly developed then and remains so.
Bach Collegium Japan gave an exceptional performance of Bach's B minor Mass on its first UK visit. Here was Bach the miniaturist, performed by the tiniest of numbers but with remarkable restraint. Masaaki Suzuki, a member of Japan's minute Christian community, founded Bach Collegium Japan, a Baroque orchestra and chorus, in 1990, to introduce Japanese audiences to period-instrument performances of great Baroque works. So successful has Suzuki been that he and his ensemble are now competing with Europeans such as John Eliot Gardiner and Ton Koopman in recordingBach's Cantatas.
It is the Cantatas that provide the clue to Suzuki's approach. Bach had to turn out Cantatas by the dozen in Leipzig and his forces were small. His Mass in B minor was not a single work but assembled from many previous Cantatas, with some of the movements used in later Cantatas.
Suzuki 's soprano soloists dipped in and out of the 16-strong choir for their solo numbers. Joanne Lunn has the most angelic voice, bell-like in its purity and pitch. Christina Landshamer, meanwhile, was underpowered. Robin Blaze (counter-tenor) coloured subtly in the "Agnus Dei", and Gerd Turk (tenor) impressively rode difficult pitches in the "Benedictus". Peter Kooij (bass) eschewed all but the plain. Oddly, the male soloists remained separate from the choir.
High points from the choir were the airy articulation of the opening "Kyrie", a remarkable still centre in "Et incarnatus est" and seamless counterpoint - up to eight parts! Instrumentally, the magical playing of the oboe d'amore, the astonishing accuracy of the three valveless trumpets, the springiness of the continuo and the fearless corno di caccia stay in the mind. But this was team work, marvellously balanced, with nothing grand or overblown, and suitably inscrutable.
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