Posts Tagged ‘Bach Collegium Japan’

In a program named “Early Cantatas for Easter and Pentecost”, the Bach Collegium Japan offered this evening three cantatas – Christ lag in Todes Banden (BWV 4 – Mühlhausen, 1707 or 1708), Die Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret! (BWV 31 – Weimar, 1715) and Erschallet, ihr Lieder (BWV 172 – Weimar, 1714, this one being the Pentecost item), preceded by three organ pieces BWV 531, 618 and 667) and by Pachelbel’s take on the Christ lag in Todes Banden text.

The program was exuberantly opened by Masato Suzuki’s playing of the Lüneburg Prelude and Fugue in C, the pedal opening played with more gusto than elegance, something we would miss when the choral pieces would finally begin. To start with, the Pachelbel item is not the most varied or inspired piece in the world and I would rather believe that it was chosen to highlight Bach’s superior imagination and abilities. In any case, it was a rare opportunity to sample it, aptly performed by the BCJ from a very introspective point of view. BWV 4 itself can be a rather atmospheric piece, as one can sample in John Eliot Gardiner’s live recording from Eisenach, a poignant sinfonia paving the way to an opening chorus that steadily grows in intensity. This evening, “intensity” is not the word I would use to describe it, but rather a cold elegance that made some of the more buoyant passages almost lighthearted. Yet it paid off in an exquisite soprano/alto duet, abstract in an almost otherworldly manner. While Gardiner avoided solo singing, Masaaki Suzuki, as much as Harnoncourt, had the choir singing the “coro” items. Soprano Hana Blazikova’s and countertenor Hiroya Aoki’s voices were perfectly blended in ethereal mezza voce.

BWV 31 had a very bump start. Natural trumpets can be testing for the musicians but this evening they proved to be difficult for the audience too. In BWV 4, the reduced orchestra sounded – in the Tokyo Opera City acoustics – quite scrawny and overshadowed by the choir. And the trumpets only made things more difficult. Moreover, BWV 31’s opening chorus is a tough cookie in what regards balance. I’m afraid that this evening “clarity” was not part of the recipe. Among the soloists, Makoto Sakurada showed himself as an almost ideal Bach tenor, exceptionally firm-toned, flexible and clear in enunciation. He handles the recitatives very adeptly, but could relax a bit and just “carry the tune” in a more spontaneous way in the arias. In any case, in comparison, to Dominik Wörner, he would could be taken as a model of legato. The German bass sings in an almost parlando style in a voice so poor in overtones that sometimes you could take him for a tenor. Here Hana Blazikova too had her edgy moments and lacked tone in her lower register. In Gardiner’s recording, Gillian Keith sounds warmer and more engaging in comparison. Those allergic to vibrato, even used in a very sensible way, would not agree with me, I am afraid. De gustibus.

The final item, BWV 172, happens to be my very favorite Bach cantata and the BCJ choir did not disappoint me, singing with animation and clarity in an ideal pace set by Maestro Suzuki for the opening (and closing) chorus. Unfortunately, the reduced strings still proved to be problematic for balance. In spite of the meager tonal quality, Wörner dealt commendably with the low tessitura and the florid writing – sometimes better than some more famous singers. Moreover, he must have a very good sense of pitch to keep his line singing together with a very wayward “holy trinity” of trumpets. Again, Sakurada proved to have no technical problems in this writing, but found very little sensuousness in his depiction of spiritual paradise. A shortcoming also found in Blazikova’s countribution for the ecstatic duet in which she failed to float high notes and produce really clear trills. Aoki, on the other hand, was admirably sensitive and HEARABLE (I have many recordings of this cantata and the countertenor is usually eclipsed by the soprano here – not this evening, I am glad to report).

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Bach’s Matthäus-Passion was probably first performed in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig almost three hundred years ago – and I guess it must feel like a great responsibility to perform it in a church where the name of Johann Sebastian Bach is a sacred thing. The main item of this years Bachfest Leipzig was precisely a performance of this work’s early version – with the Bach Collegium Japan under its conductor Masaaki Suzuki, whose ongoing series of recording of Bach cantatas is rated among the best.

Differently from many concerts held in church, the musicians were not placed towards the altar, but in the choir loft, where they are supposed to be during services in the church. This made for a neck-challenging experience for almost everyone in the church, other those who payed for very expensive tickets… in the choir loft. From my place, I could see some soloists, the conductor, one or two violinists and the Thomaner boys who sang the “soprano in ripieno” in the opening number. In aural terms, truth be said, it all made very little difference – I could hear everything with immediacy. I have never heard any concert in the Thomaskirche before and cannot say where the conductor choices end and where the peculiarities of the building’s acoustics begin. As it was, the sound was extremely warm – with all its advantages (a golden enveloping orchestral sound) and disadvantages (ensembles could become a bit tangled). At first I thought that the conductor rather considerate tempo for the opening number, for instance, was his adaptation to the church’s acoustic, but then I’ve checked his recording – and it was basically the same pulse, which evokes rather a reverential than dance-like approach to the triple-tempo (I can see some of my 15 or 16 readers, “as it should be”).  As a matter of fact, the whole performance suggested a preference for smooth rather than sharply defined articulation. If that had been related to a fervid rather than detached approach to interpretation, that could have concurred to an intense interpretation à la Gardiner, but, no, the impression here was of a non-approach.

I may be wrong, but some nervousness might explain all that. The difficult obligato in Gibt mir meinen Jesum wieder was not immaculate in tuning, the whole of Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand was a bit untidy, woodwind in Mache dich was not really precise (the tempo was a bit on the fast side too). The second part is indeed more “dramatic” than the first one, but I did believe that everybody seemed to be more engaged in it. In the tenor aria Geduld, wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen, the gamba and the theorbo did produce “stinging” sounds, Erbarme dich had an almost “Romantic” atmosphere (the solo violin sometimes could sound a bit Tchaikovskian for some tastes). Speaking of theorbo, I had the impression that the theorbo was so loud that it made us difficult to hear the gamba in the tenor aria, for example . There is a passionate discussion about the theorbo in the continuo in Bach’s religious works and I really am not knowledgeable enough to take part in it, but, well, I don’t like it. I’ve checked Harnoncourt’s last recording, Leonhardt’s and McCreesh’s and none of them seem to buy the idea. Maybe because they are not using the early edition – so I’ve checked Müller-Brühl (who’s supposed to use it) and the theorbo doesn’t appear with the same assiduity as last evening. In Erbarme dich, I found it even distracting – to my taste, it brought a certain gentleness, the wrong sort of intimacy (the one you’d find in Handel’s O sleep, why dost thou leave me? from Semele). But, de gustibus. Mr. Suzuki certainly knows better.

If I found some gauche moments in the orchestra, I found none in the chorus, who sang with amazing clarity and purpose. My impression of nervousness applies to some of this evening’s singers too. Not the sopranos – Johanette Zomer’s boyish soprano is exactly what a period-practice radical would want in this music. I particularly prefer Hana Blazikova’s bell-toned voice, which sustained Aus Liebe with real purity of line. Robin Blaze has a very clear high register too, but he was a bit lost around the break and the problem seemed to get worse during the evening. Japanese countertenor Hiroya Aoki was clearly uneasy and uncertain of pitch. Gerd Türk is a vivid narrator and guided the audience as the Evangelist with amazing engagement and absolute sense of style. It is not an easy task to tackle the arias too – his Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen was a bit strained, while Satoshi Mizukoshi – even if the result was a bit stiff – displayed a far freer and more dulcet tenor in Geduld. The now veteran Bachian Peter Kooij (who sang Jesus and some of the arias) sounds a bit rusty now and was not very comfortable with his low notes either, but in any case sang with more authority than Dominik Wörner, who does have the right voice for this music, but left something to be desired in intonation and warmth.

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When the first CD of the Bach cantata series from the Bach Collegium Japan was released, I was immediately convinced by the project – Classic CD magazine offered two tracks from Actus Tragicus that I found simply otherworldly. Having bought the CD, I found not only all the performances praiseworthy, but also the explanations about performance choices scholarly, sincere and sensible – especially what was written about the reason for such an enterprise coming from a group in Japan considering the religious expression inevitably linked to these works. Therefore, when I have decided to come to Japan, my first thought was trying to find an opportunity to see the BCJ live.

This decision met the unexpected news that they would be performing three Bach cantatas in their own Kobe Shoin Chapel, the acoustics of which are widely praised. So that was it – I was to go to Kobe to see them. What I didn’t know before is that the building of that chapel was in fact the remote origin of the whole Bach cantata series. So it has more than a special meaning for the project.

It seems that the idea of building the chapel has to do with the fact that the Shoin Women’s University is an Anglican institution that, as such, views the study and practice of music as an important part of education. When the new campus was settled in 1981, it was decided that the chapel would be its centerpiece. Prof. Tatsuji Hirashima, a chemist whose studies finally shifted to the area of acoustics and tuning, was chosen to coordinate the acoustic project and the installation of the pipe organ (a French-styled instrument built by Marc Garnier in 1983).

When Prof. Hirashima died in 1986, Prof. Masaaki Suzuki was invited to take his place and, in order to fulfil the chapel’s musical activities, Bach Collegium Japan was created in 1990. Five years later, the president of BIS, the Swedish classical music label, visited Kobe and proposed the recording of the complete series of Bach cantatas. They are currently on volume 40. Considering the carefully placed microphones, I have the impression that Saturday’s concert was being taped.

Rarely has the experience of visiting the venue where a concert would be held has affected my impression on the music I would hear as in that afternoon. There is a benign atmosphere about that place – you would never guess you were attending a concert of a world-famous famous group to be eventually released in the international market. Some of the kindest and most artless people greet you as you approach the chappel. Then you are given a number while you wait outside. Then this nice gentleman takes a microphone and start to call number by number so that you take a seat inside. While that happens, you can see the performers stroll nearby, take a glass of water or something like that.

Once inside, you realise that the chapel is not a perfect concert venue. Although the CD booklets always show the musicians in the rear side of the building, the “stage” was set in the entrance. So microphones had to be removed in order to let people in and then replaced. A North-European lady (someone from BIS, I guess) with a roll of tape on her hand would eventually ask some members of the audience to excuse her while she settled cables on the ground etc.  Other than this, as one could have imagined, there is no inclination in order to prevent people in one role from blocking the view of those seated behind.

The program centered around cantatas written for Leipzig in 1726. The opening item was BWV 43 Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzet. I have to confess that the first chorus gave me a puzzling impression. Before choristers started to sing, I was struck by the warmest and most immediate sound one could think of, but as soon singers joined the instruments, I found the aural image rather tangled. This impression was increased by the following recitative and aria, when tenor Gerd Türk was under heavy weather trying to be heard. I am no specialist in acoustics, but I did have the impression the medium and lower ranges were somehown overblown – I cannot explain exactly, but there was a problem in balance. When soprano Rachel Nicholls sang the first words in the next recitative, I’ve started to think that the problem could be Mr. Türk’s tenor’s limited volume, for Nicholls’s bell-toned soprano easily filled the church. The next soloist, Peter Kooij, is a singer I had previously seen in 1999 in Rio (a Johannes Passion with Philippe Herreweghe). His pleasant round bass has lost a bit of its former resonance, especially in the lower end, but again I could not help noticing that lower tessitura was especially problematic – it seemed again that the medium and lower ranges seemed over-resonant, making it difficult for this singer to pierce through. However, my impression from Kooij in the past was that his strong rich-toned voice was perfectly hearable in a large hall as the one in Rio. The ensuing aria was probably the most problematic number in the whole concert – the excessively warm acoustics, mismatches between singer, orchestra and trumpet (I know, valveless trumpet is an ordeal for a performer, but the tuning was a bit trying for the audience too) teamed up for a messy result. Countertenor Robin Blaze’s bright sound fared a bit better (he was also in particularly fluent voice).

The next cantata, BWV 88 Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden featured similar problems, but one must single out Mr. Kooij’s amazingly long breath and clear divisions in his opening aria. Also, Ms. Nicholls deserves some considerations. I will right away say that she made me an admirer – it is an exceptionally firm, sweet-toned voice with none of those constricted, unflowing high notes some sopranos in this repertoire tend to produce. She also sings with unfailing grace and sense of style and, more commendably, handles the text knowingly. I only believe she was a bit outside the scale of the event – her voice was somewhat too powerful for that chapel and it is not because she was singing too loud. Saying that she could pierce through the orchestra (something her colleagues were having some trouble to accomplish) is an understatement: she presided over the sound picture and sometimes her top notes were quite obtruding. To say that there is something wrong with her would be more than unfair – this is an admirable quality for a Bach singer, I mean, to keep this level of purity without constriction or downscaling. I could not help recalling the Matthäus Passion with Helmut Rilling in the Carnegie Hall in 2007 when Sybilla Rubens’s soprano sounded pale and fragile in the big auditorium, whereas Rachel Nicholls would have probably sounded delightful instead. Here, she was an uncomfortable duettist for Blaze in Beruft Gott selbst, when she basically overshadowed him, even when she tried to pull back the brightness of her sound.

I have to confess I was really frustrated to this point. I know some of the world’s most famous acoustics can be challenging for visiting orchestras (such as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam), but hearing the “house band” in such unfavorable circumstances seemed a mystery to my so far. After the intermission, we would have not only a longer, but more famous (and also most impressive) work in BWV 146 Wir müssen dürch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen.

The cantata opened in a positive note – the organ obligatto part gave us the opportunity to listen to the smooth sound of the chapel’s organ and soloist Masato Suzuki relished the opportunity. The opening sinfonia was played in the grand manner. The ensuing chorus surprised me in its absolute clarity – instead of having the acoustics playing against them, singers and instrumentists used the warm sound to produce an unforgettable atmosphere. Finally that was the Bach Collegium Japan I was wishing to hear! This number is particularly tricky in its dissonant effects, and the balance achieved by the chorus (2 sopranos, three altos, three tenors and three basses) was outstanding. Robin Blaze sang an immaculate Ich will nach dem Himmel zu and my only complaint again Rachel Nicholl’s exquisite singing in Ich säe meine Zähren is that she did not blend with the woodwind concertante writing as expected.

Considering that BWV 146 is a well-known work and more often performed than both BWV 43 and 88, I tend to believe that the BWV 146 had benefited from more performance experience from the BCJ than the other works, which not only need a bit more polishing but also require some adjustment to the delicate if ultimately rewarding acoustics (in the ideal conditions). I wonder if the performance I attended is going to be used by BIS – the first two cantatas will certainly need some cosmetic adjustment. The BCJ series has been famous for polish and these items would contrast with previous releases.

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