Masaaki Suzuki, the man behind the complete series of Bach cantatas with the Bach Collegium Japan, is now regarded as an authority in the music from the Master. It is, nonetheless, curious that the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester has invited this specialist used to his excellent period instrument band to conduct a very typical German Romantic orchestra – the encounter of these both worlds seemed promising enough, especially when the second item of the program is Mozart’s encyclopaedic Mass KV 427.
The opening piece in the program was Bach’s Orchestral Suite no.1. At first, the warmth of the orchestral sound was simply irresistible, but in the fugal section the conductor simply pressed his musicians too hard. While the woodwind wowed the audience with breathtaking accuracy, the strings were operating really close to their limits. As the egg-timer treatment did not bring about any expressive gain, I wonder if the idea was ultimately wise. In the remaining dances, there was a sensation of straight-jacked elegance, but very little charm (I write that as I hear Jordi Savall’s more relaxed and more seductive performance recorded in Metz).
The Christmas cantata Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63, didn’t dismiss the atmosphere of nervousness. While the tempi are not dissimilar from his recording for BIS, his Japanese performance sounds exhilarating and festive, maybe because his musicians are used to the approach. There he had more appropriate soloists too. Simona Saturová has exquisite high notes, but seemed uncomfortable with phrasing with Bachian instrumental poise. Moreover, she has something of a lisp that disfigures her pronunciation of the letter “s” (as in sun – not as in Senta). Truth be said, that duet is quite unsingable – and, if I had to choose, I would say she was rather an asset than a liability. Although Annette Markert sounds dignified enough in her typically oratorio contralto, the sound is a bit matronly and not clean enough – the matching with the tenor’s voice in their duet was problematic. It is not her fault that Bach has written the part in an uncomfortable area of the contralto voice (and Markert must be praised for her seamless passaggio), but even a firmer-toned and sharper-focused (and more expressive too!) singer such as Sara Mingardo in Gardiner’s live recording found it a bit difficult, while countertenor Yoshikazu Mera in Suzuki’s CD could not help finding the tessitura most congenial (I am no connoisseur, but – correct me if I am wrong – this aria was not written for a woman’s voice). Tenor Timothy Fallon, a replacement for Lothar Odynius, does not have the poised quality of a Bach tenor, but, other than this, offered a very decent performance. For his credit, this does not seem to be his usual repertoire. Dominik Wörner has a Klaus Mertens-like voice, baritone-like yet resonant in its lower reaches, but very light and short in harmonics in the upper end of his register. As usual, the RIAS-Kammerchor sang expressively and stylishly.
Suzuki’s approach to the Mass KV 427 would be more interesting, if no less problematic. Nikolaus Harnoncourt had said something like “baroque music speaks, while Romantic music paints”. The problem remains with what to do with Classicism – if it is true that Mozart still uses the “codes” of baroque music, his whole aesthetic approach couldn’t be more different from Bach’s or Handel’s, even when he is finding inspiration in them, as in this case. This evening performance couldn’t be more illustrative – Suzuki really let this score “speak”, highlighting every little expressive trait in a very discursive way. I confess I have discovered many “new” sides of this work this evening, but this treatment hampered the musical flow and drained some of the spontaneous grace from it. And the tempi were really fast – the RIAS Kammerchor (which has sung this very work earlier this year under their conductor Rademann and with an excellent soprano II in Stella Doufexis) met the challenge with brio: their accuracy and energy in the zippiest Cum sancto spiritu fugue in my experience was something to marvel. In the choral movements, this performance produced its right effect and paid off the conductor’s adventurousness. The solo parts are notoriously difficult and the conductor did not make anyone’s life easy. While no singer has disgraced him or herself, a performance that demands such dexterity of its soloists requires bel canto singers who could make light of the strain and show off virtuoso quality – Aleksandra Kurzak and Joyce DiDonato would have probably taken the audience to some sort of Koloraturfest. As it was, Saturová had the elements of greatness, but they didn’t build up to greatness itself. As said above, her high notes are glittering and project beautifully and she can trill, but there are fluttery or metallic moments and her middle register sometimes sounds as if it belonged to some older and more worn-voiced than her. She has sense of style and good instincts, but, well, she is from Bratislava, a city that “trained” Lucia Popp, Edita Gruberová and Luba Orgonasová, who were all of them immaculate soloists who went far beyond the notes themselves in this piece. I wonder if it is not time for Véronique Gens to move on – she had to work hard for the fioriture, her middle and low registers seemed reined-in and her high notes blossomed sometimes too exuberantly for this piece. I do have a soft spot for her sensuous and creamy voice, but I guess it is time to sing with the capital and tackle something heartier.