Reverence and Distilled Beauty from Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan

CanadaCanada Various: Joanne Lunn (soprano), Ryo Terakado (violin), Liliko Maeda (traverse flute), Masamitsu San’nomiya (oboe), Bach Collegium Japan / Masaaki Suzuki (director/continuo), Chan Centre, Vancouver, 9.12.2018. (GN)

Joanne Lunn (soprano) with Masaaki Suzuki & Bach Collegium Japan © Jan Gates

J.S. Bach – Orchestral Suite No.2 in B minor BWV1067
Vivaldi – Concerto in D minor for Two Violins and Strings Op.3 No.11
Corti – ‘Languet anima mea’
Marcello – Oboe Concerto in D minor RV454
Telemann – Quatuor No.1 in D major (from Nouveaux Quatuors)
Handel – ‘Silete venti’ HWV242

After all the energetic and brightly-lit Baroque ensembles that have visited over the years, it was refreshing to witness the unselfconscious modesty and devotion in the music making of Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan. The ensemble has received great praise for its recording of the integral Bach cantatas for BIS and is now in its twenty-eighth year under Suzuki’s leadership. It has visited New York over the years, but this was its Vancouver debut. One delightful feature of the concert was the variety in the programming, running from orchestral pieces by Bach, Vivaldi and Marcello through a Paris quartet by Telemann to two motets by Handel and Francesco Corti, sung by fresh-toned British soprano Joanne Lunn. Yet it was the group’s reverential attitude to music-making that was the real treat: Suzuki and his troupe seemed to perform each work like they were discovering a sacred precious stone, its secrets and beauties to be uncovered gently and only through the most discerning and refined exploration. There is an austerity and a purity in this approach, almost free of human interference; only beneath does one glimpse the great sensitivity and concentration of the artists.

The concert opened with Bach’s Orchestral Suite No.2, which gave a good idea of the delights in store. The approach is small scale and intimate (the group drew on a maximum of eleven players for this tour), and one immediately noticed the tonal precision and flow. Liliko Maeda’s traverse flute naturally has a central role, and there was lovely fineness in her articulation. The strings were cleanly terraced and had a notable transparency when playing together. All the authentic conventions regarding phrasing and accents were in place, and each note was given its precise weight, yet there was still a peaceful, seamless quality in the articulation of the string lines. This is not to suggest a lack of energy or colour: while the Ouverture was modest, there was an eagerness in the Bourées that seemed most appropriate, while the inflected flute notes often elevated the soundstage, not least in the athletic Badinerie that closed the suite. There was always fine-spun silk in the results, a testament to a perspicacious weaving of the intricacies of the composer’s counterpoint to secure a balanced and jeweled whole. Sometimes I thought of Japanese watercolours in the dabs of colour, subtly braided lines and pristine balance.

One of the joys of hearing Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins Op.3 No.11 was reacquainting myself with concertmaster Ryo Terakado – an esteemed veteran of the authentic movement and one of ‘purest of the pure’ as far as violin technique goes. Terakado partnered most elegantly with Yukie Yamaguchi, and the orchestra provided subtle internal detailing and a fine sense of dynamics. The highlight was the suspended inexorability achieved in the slow movement, though the finale had wonderful detail and motion too. Marcello’s Oboe Concerto in D minor (1725) follows in the mould of Tomaso Albinoni, his contemporary, and this work has long been the bread and butter of oboist Masamitsu San’nomiya. His interpretation is colourful and virtuosic, with evident dynamic sophistication, variation in shade and phrasing and imagination in ornaments. Again, for all the temptations of virtuosity, this remained a very patient performance, Suzuki and the orchestra seeking structural integration and a pristine balance with the soloist, with no trace of hurry at all.

Greater intimacy came with Terakado and flutist Maeda joining cellist Emmanuel Balssa and Suzuki on the continuo in the first of Telemann’s celebrated ‘Paris Quartets’ (1738). The lightness and refinement were special: Maeda’s flute articulation was so clean at points that it reminded me of ‘raindrops’, while Terakado and Suzuki were always subtle and knowing. At the same time, the group was fully up to the bustle of the first Vite, even if they may have travelled at less than that marking in the imaginative closing piece. But the latter carried extremely well, capturing its delightful imitative and echo effects and key modulations with aplomb.

The two motets with Joanne Lunn, Francesco Corti’s ‘Languet anima mea’ (1716) and Handel’s ‘Silete venti’ (1724), were set at the ends of each half of the concert and, interestingly, mixed the vivacity of Lunn with the relative austerity of the instrumentalists. What both undoubtedly shared was discipline and precision: the care in balancing the vocal and instrumental lines was impeccable. Time and time again one noticed ascending passages for the soprano where all the instruments achieved exactly the same volume level as the singer. But Lunn offered many vocal delights beyond this; perhaps it was her freshness and honesty of expression and absence of self-conscious glamour that seemed to square so well with the overall aesthetic of the ensemble. In any event, these were marvelous performances, always so musical but, in Lunn’s and Suzuki’s hands, also intimate and personal.

From the opening recitative of the Corti, the sharpness and verticality in the soprano’s vocal presentation stood out. She displayed rigour and discipline but also a sense of gravity that was matched by the orchestra. Lunn does not cloak her feelings; her absorption in the text is strong, and her immediacy of expression turned out to be quite gripping throughout the motet’s three arias. Suzuki’s fastidious rhythmic anchoring lay under it all. The Handel was perhaps even finer and certainly has more virtuoso challenges for the singer. In fact, I was amazed by Lunn’s facility: her sheer beauty and strength on top, her ability to expand out a full cantabile line at pianissimo, the naturalness of her expression at any range, the sharpness of her cut and thrust, her estimable agility in the coloratura runs and, even more important, the buoyancy and freshness through it all. The recitative ‘O fortuna anima’ and aria ‘Date serta’ were the absolute highlights here. Masaaki Suzuki and the ensemble may have appeared unassuming, but they were always there for the singer, seeing the line of the work so well and securing pristine dynamics and tonal blend.

There was not a trace of contrivance or adornment, just the commitment to bringing out the riches of this music in the most transparent and communicative way. And that was the story of the entire concert: the concentration from beginning to end was formidable. It was as if we were taken into some faraway cathedral, allowed to eavesdrop on the rarefied proceedings of a sacred event and then gently released.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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