Suzuki Broadens his Horizons from Bach to Handel and Vivaldi to Great Effect

United StatesUnited States   Bach, Vivaldi, Handel: Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki (conductor, organ,  harpsichord), Joanne Lunn (soprano), Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York (6.11.2015) (SSM)

Bach: “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047
Vivaldi: Concerto in C Major for Recorder, Strings and Continuo, RV 443
Handel: Gloria in B-flat Major
Bach: Flute Sonata in E Minor, BWV 1034
Vivaldi: Concerto in C Major for Oboe, Strings and Continuo, RV 450
Bach: Cantata No. 51: Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!, BWV 51

Masaaki Suzuki has been visiting New York for several years now, often to mentor and conduct Juilliard415, the Historical Performance student group.  For some of Bach’s larger works, he has combined forces with Yale’s early music instrumental and vocal programs. As founder and director of the Bach Collegium Japan, Suzuki’s greatest achievement has been to record the complete secular cantatas of Bach: an accomplishment reserved for only a handful of conductors. As an instrumentalist, he has played and recorded most of Bach’s keyboard works. When he is not playing Bach, he has pretty much kept within the German Baroque school, performing works by Bach’s predecessors such as Schutz and Buxtehude.

Some of the music on this program is not often performed, and the works that are more familiar benefited from a fresh approach. The Vivaldi Concerto for Recorder, usually played on the flautino, has been a staple ending for several of the Italian groups visiting New York. It’s a showcase for Giovanni Antonini and his group, Il Giardino Armonico: the conductor ends many of his programs dipping and dancing, awaiting the wide-eyed audience’s applause and bravi. Andreas Böhlen, when performing it here, upped the ante by not only matching Antonini’s speed but also taking the da capo of the final movement and ornamenting every measure. Surely this is something that any virtuoso flautino player could have done when performing it with her fellow students at the girls’ orphanage where Vivaldi taught. But delightful as it may have been, the time has come to put this concerto out to pasture.

The Brandenburgs are a linchpin for many baroque groups’ programs. If only one is chosen, the decision is often determined by the technical abilities of the concertino group. The Third focuses on the violin and viola, the Fifth on a harpsichordist with the ability to play the dazzling first movement cadenza and the Second on the difficult trumpet part. I won’t go into the history of the still-ongoing controversies as to which instrument Bach had intended for the Second; his only notation on the manuscript was a “tromba in F”. Did he mean really mean a “tromba” (trumpet) or “corno” (horn) or was it a “corno di caccia” (hunting horn) or a “tromba piccolo”? Maybe it was a tiny, high-pitched clarion trumpet. Or it could just be a trumpet in F. Playing the part with any of these is supremely difficult, and I think Bach would have been happy with any instrument that was able to hit the notes most of the time.

I always sit on the edge of my seat when the Second Brandenburg opens, anticipating a sour note coming from the brass section, and sometimes I don’t relax till the work ends. Guy Ferber struggled a bit in the first measures but came through with barely a nick. Even though I began to trust him midway in the first movement, his playing so teetered on the razor’s edge that I never fully relaxed. But he did a fine job, and every bravo he received was earned.

A very sensitive and delicate performance of one of Bach’s flute sonatas continued the program after the intermission. It’s not often that speed is sacrificed so that the listener can actually dwell in the music, but it was so with Kiyomi Suga’s rendition. Suga was no slouch either, as demonstrated by her virtuosic skills in the last movement allegro.

One of the two vocal works brought Joanne Lunn on stage is the recently discovered Gloria in B-flat, thought to be by Handel. There are still holdouts who doubt its authenticity, and I can see why. Although it has some striking moments, it has none of the spark and levity that one finds in other works from Handel’s first years in Rome, such as his series of Italian cantatas. These works had to be disguised as sacred music due to a ban by the powers that be. Handel had no great difficulties with writing music in Rome: sacred music will have a very different libretto, but music is abstract and cannot be made into anything other than itself. One cannot hear music from this period and state categorically that it is sacred or profane.

Joanne Lunn had the right voice to cover the required range in the Gloria. There were some melismas that seemed to go on forever, and Lunn was in control of all of them, all of the time. In the joyful Cantata BWV 51, trumpet and voice vied but never drowned each other out. Suzuki got the balance just right.

Stan Metzger

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