Bach Collegium Japan

Cantata ‘Jesu, der du meine Seele’, BVW78
Cantata ‘Siehe zu, dass deine Gottesfurcht’, BVW179
Cantata ‘Bekennen will ich seinen Namen’, BVW200
Mass in G, BVW236

Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Robin Blaze (countertenor)
Gerd Türk (tenor)
Peter Kooy (bass)

Bach Collegium Japan
Masaaki Suzuki

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 7 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Masaaki Suzuki formed Bach Collegium Japan in 1990, aiming to introduce Japanese audiences to period-instrument performances of great works of the Baroque era. The group has made an international name for itself through many acclaimed BIS recordings, particularly of Bach cantatas.

Twenty-one singers filed onto the platform for this late-night Prom. Those taking solo parts sat first among equals with the rest and also sang in the communal chorales. There is strength of some five voices to each part – more than Rifkin and less than Gardiner. The collective sound is easy on the ear – technically assured and accomplished, mellow and smoothly co-ordinated. The volume is restricted, but shaded sensitively. The body of sound varies, too: basically gentle and fluent, rippling yet precise, while darker, more intense chorales are only a little louder – and impress through having slightly more substance.

The instruments comprised 10 violins, 3 violas, 2 oboes, 1 horn and 1 flute with a continuo of 2 cellos, 2 violone and 1 bassoon plus harpsichord and organ. The strings were very reticent. The violone players brushed at their instruments: had they played any louder, the sound would have grated and irritated. The wind instruments made their mark rather more perceptibly, effortlessly and engaging. Instrumentalists with solo-spots advanced to the front of the platform.

In Cantata 78 a mellow flute accompanied the tenor’s aria – an obbligato reflection on Jesus’s blood erasing “our guilt”. Later, a robust oboe accompanied the bass’s declaration of the power of faith. A muted, mellifluous horn solemnised the occasion. In Cantata 179, violin and oboe weaved circles around the tenor’s firm denunciation of hypocrites who “shine beautifully on the surface” and two oboes da caccia hovered protectively over the soprano’s yearning and penitent prayer. In the fragment, all that survives of Cantata 200, two violins came to the fore, confirming the illumination to which the alto attests. In all these moments, there was a sense of partnership – of words sung with warm, modest sincerity, receiving further articulation and comment from melodic accompaniment, light yet grave.

The soloists contributed appropriately – as team-members brought to the fore. Robin Blaze’s countertenor and Gerd Türk’s tenor were outstanding; both have pure and steady voices. They ‘adorned’ the cantatas, in the best sense of the word. Blaze, furthermore, was a joy in his duets with Carolyn Sampson. She was assured with just a few moments of unsteadiness and tremor. Peter Kooy was less cheering, despite his experience and reputation. It’s partly that Bach wrote quite punishing solos for basses and partly because bass-singers often seem rather strained revealing timbres that tend towards the reedy rather than the naturally rich.

Masaaki Suzuki is responsible for all this excellence. He is lighter on his feet than, say, Karl Richter in this repertoire. His tempos are nimble, the playing and singing he demands is adroit and ingratiating. The performance he evokes are nimble, sensitive and human and do not attempt to conjure up the gravitas integral to the Christian narrative, especially as one might suppose Lutherans to have understood it in the Leipzig of the early 18th-century.

In this sense, the “Mass in G” was a fitting culmination to the concert. It is lightweight compared with the one in B minor. (Lightweight is here not a term of opprobrium.) This “Mass” expresses the continuing joy of being among the faithful and belonging with them, rather than demanding that one perpetually probe the gnawing depths of the Passion. Bach expresses this sensibility immaculately; Bach Collegium Japan conveyed his state of mind impeccably.

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