Beyond Bach – Masaaki Suzuki with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra

SingaporeSingapore Bach, Poulenc, Beethoven: Masato Suzuki (organ), Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Masaaki Suzuki (conductor), Victoria Concert Hall, Singapore, 28.8.2015 (RP)

C. P. E. Bach: Sinfonia in D major, H.633 Wq.183/1
Poulenc: Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings in G minor
Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36

Transition could have served as the theme of this concert. When Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 premiered in 1803, he was shedding the influence of his Classical forebears, poised to enter the “heroic” middle period that would usher in the Romantic era. Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach served as a bridge from the Baroque to the Classical, heavily influencing the next generation of composers including Haydn, Mozart and, indeed, Beethoven. Poulenc’s stylistic evolution was prompted by a personal loss  ̶  the tragic death of a close friend. While never abandoning the light-hearted style of his youth, he turned more frequently to large-scale, serious works, often in a sacred vein.

Musical styles, forms and instruments are constantly evolving. In the not-too-distant past, as the old ways were abandoned, they were all but lost. This changed only in the mid-20th century when recording became commonplace. Masaaki Suzuki’s life work has been devoted to resurrecting the past for which no aural records exist, specifically the music of J. S. Bach. In an era when many in the music world use current sensibilities as their starting point, Suzuki takes the opposite approach. His aim is to approximate the sound and style of the period, thereby providing an audience with a more authentic experience, closer to what the composer intended. The approach can be deeply rewarding, as it was in this concert with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Less than 50 years separates the C. P. E. Bach and Beethoven symphonies. Stylistically, there is more that unites than divides them  ̶  short phrases, frequent changes of dynamics and rhythmic patterns, and strong emotional statements  ̶  as both are Classical symphonies. Delving into the differences however, is Suzuki’s stock in trade, and this he did through subtle but real variances in articulation and phrasing. The fantastic energy of both works was also a unifying factor, but Suzuki emphasized the drama in the Beethoven, which was a clear break with the past. The only period instruments used were natural horns in the Bach. It is impossible to transform a modern orchestra into a period band, but the SSO rose to the challenge, playing with a fleetness and sense of immediacy that clearly resonated with the audience.

I could of course be reading too much into this transition in the programming of C. P. E. Bach’s Sinfonia in D major. It could just as likely have been the opportunity to honor what appears to have been a healthy Bach father/son relationship. With Masaaki and Masato Suzuki, the musical apple likewise appears not to have fallen too far, and congenially so, from the proverbial tree. Although no stranger to the Baroque, Masato Suzuki’s musical endeavors are more eclectic than those of his father and include forays into German Lieder, Wagner’s operas and traditional Japanese music. In this concert he performed as an organist, as he did earlier this year in a solo recital at the Esplanade Concert Hall.

The composer himself wrote that his organ concerto was “like a Poulenc en route for the cloisters,” although in going down that path he did curry favor with the public. His sacred or more serious works, such as Dialogues des carmélites, Stabat Mater and Gloria are performed more often today than his witty, sophisticated songs, ballets and piano music. It would be wrong, however, to assume that the organ concerto is austere and devoid of all charm. Poulenc managed to slip in more than one languid melody atop his customary sensuous harmonies. Besides, with Suzuki père et fils on stage, a certain joy permeates the atmosphere as a matter of course.

Poulenc makes more than a passing nod to the Baroque in his organ concerto, both structurally and with clear references to J. S. Bach. This musical terrain is perfectly suited to the senior Suzuki’s approach, with his emphasis on articulation, phrasing and quicksilver dynamic changes illuminating the drama and the calm, which exist side by side in the concerto. Seated above the orchestra, the younger Suzuki added a visual, as well as musical, intimacy to the performance. His choice of registrations reflected his subtle, refined musical taste. It is not, however, a concerto for organ alone, as tympani is also in the title. Its ominous sounds were an integral part of the musical texture, at times rising to the surface and catching one by surprise. Poulenc was spare and sly in his use of this instrument, as was the SSO’s Principal Tympanist, Christian Schiøle, in his execution of this pivotal part.

This was simply a superb concert. A few fluffed notes and occasional lapses in intonation were easily forgiven. A moment’s repose at the end of the Beethoven would have been welcome, but the bravos that rang out practically before the final note had sounded were in keeping with the energy and excitement in the hall. In Singapore, however, Suzuki resonates on yet another level. As the City of Leipzig noted in awarding him the Bach Medal 2012, he has “created an awareness for a scientifically and historically oriented performance practice in Japan and the entire Asian region.” The applause was in recognition of this aspect of his legacy too. Were there but more such ambassadors in the world.

Rick Perdian

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