Masato Suzuki – Organ Music Bridging 8 Centuries and 2 Continents

SingaporeSingapore  Anon., Bach, Sweelinck, Hosokowa. Liszt: Masato Suzuki (organ), Esplanade Concert Hall,  Singapore 19.4.2015 (RP)

Robertsbridge Codex: “Estampie”
Bach: “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” BWV 140
Sweelinck: “Des boosdoenders wille seer quaet” (Psalm 36), variations for organ
Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565
Hosokawa: “Cloudscape”
Liszt: “Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H,” S. 260

 I generally do not care for a performer offering commentary during a recital. It’s not so much a matter of principle, but rather that things generally start to get maudlin. Not so, however, with Masato Suzuki. His short, insightful remarks did much to explain the mysteries of the 2002 Klais organ that dominates the Esplanade Concert Hall and the music he performed to the audience. The lengthy text in the program was a bit garbled and of little help in either regard. This was Suzuki’s first visit to Singapore. He is not alone in expressing surprise at the city’s architectural marvels, including the modern concert hall in which he was performing and its magnificent organ with three keyboards, 61 ranks and 4,470 pipes.

 Suzuki explained that he chose the “Estampie” from the Robertsbridge Codex to showcase the organ’s Grand Cornet V in the Bombarde, so prominently displayed in the centre of the organ case. The Robertsbridge Codex is the earliest surviving music for keyboard and dates from the 14th century. The trumpet stops blazed loudly, with Suzuki articulating clearly the dance-like melodies and rhythms. It was a grand, explosive fanfare with which to open the recital.

 The next work on the program was Bach’s “Wachet auf.” Suzuki played the famous melody on one of the organ’s beautiful solo reeds, showcasing a different, more subtle part of the organ, less loud and brilliant than the trumpet in the previous work but just as effective. A master of the Baroque, Suzuki’s choice of registrations did much to make this work fresh to those familiar with it and introduced its beauty and structure to those to whom it may have been new.

 Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck straddled and survived the Dutch Reformation. He began his career as a Roman Catholic, but segued into the much different role of organist in the Calvinist church. Post-Reformation, musical offerings were limited in the Dutch church, with organists instructed to only play variations on the Genevan psalm tunes before and after the service so that the congregation could learn them. Sweelinck’s variations on Psalm 36 is one such work. (The tune may be familiar to some as the German hymn “Lasst uns erfreuen,” or in English-speaking countries as “Ye watchers and ye holy ones.”) The third variation was the first to hint at the power of the Esplanade’s organ.

The Sweelinck was a nod to the Netherlands where Suzuki was born, where he trained as an organist and currently lives. The organ is not indigenous to Japan, where he was raised. Toshio Hosokawa’ s “Cloudscape” bridges these two worlds, capturing the haunting sounds of a Japanese temple in the textures and the sonorities of the post-war German school, where Hosokawa has made his home.

 In “Cloudscape” the organ imitates the shō, one of the three instruments used in gagaku, Japan’s imperial court music. The shō provides tone clusters which move gradually from one to the other – just as clouds do –  underpinning the melody.  A completely different sound emitted from the organ than in the previous works. These were stark, clear flute-like tones that grew into immense, complex fortes. The third movement combined the sounds of the shō with the strings and percussion also heard in gagaku. Cloudscapes ended on a single high note which evaporated into the atmosphere.

 Two of the classics of organ literature came on either side of “Cloudscape.” Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor was taken at breakneck speed. Clarity and precision abounded. The great Liszt “Prelude & Fugue on B-A-C-H” ended the program on a loud and bombastic note. The final, chordal repetition of the theme resounded throughout the hall. This was Suzuki’s opportunity to play the virtuoso in the grand romantic style.  He did not disappoint. The result was dramatic, exciting and soul stirring.

 In acknowledging the audience’s applause, Suzuki also honored the instrument with raised hands. He offered one encore, an organ transcription of Bach’s “Air on a G String.” There were ahs from the audience, as he announced it. It was lovely, as they had anticipated.


Rick Perdian

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