The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Artists in Focus: Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan

  3rd April 2024

3rd April 2024

Over the past three decades, the record catalogues have welcomed three landmark cycles of the complete Bach cantatas. John Eliot Gardiner’s survey of the complete sacred cantatas, made in a single year during his 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, grabbed most of the headlines. But the more long-term projects of Ton Koopman and Masaaki Suzuki (the latter with his Bach Collegium Japan) have their devotees, particularly among those who appreciate a more considered, patient approach in this music. Suzuki’s cycle in particular – the sacred cantatas recorded between 1995 and 2013, the secular cantatas completed in 2018 – has been a slow-burner, sometimes criticised for its lack of dynamism, but rewarding repeated listening and avoiding the often fussily intrusive ornamentation of Koopman’s set.

None of these conductors has embraced the one-singer-per-part theories advanced by Joshua Rifkin since the 80s, but all use modest-sized professional chamber choirs that combine vocal agility with a blended sound. The consciously homogeneous sound of Suzuki's performances reflects in many ways his performance ‘lineage’. Brought up in a musical household, he first studied organ with the priest and musicologist Robert Vliegen, as well as joining a ‘Bach club’ at Tokyo University where the leading light was harpsichordist Michio Kobayashi. He then studied harpsichord and organ with Ton Koopman, though they never discussed the cantatas. But he also listened to the Bach cantata recordings made by Gustav Leonhardt for Telefunken, and it was these – rather than the more volatile Harnoncourt performances that were part of the same groundbreaking project – that seem to have influenced Suzuki's approach to the music most directly. The carefully-shaped phrasing, the blended sound, the serene unfolding of the music, the sonic beauty of the period instruments: all these are features of both Leonhardt’s and Suzuki’s Bach. And (like Koopman too, and of course Bach himself), both were keyboard players. The careful delineation of different voices in polyphonic textures was thus second nature.

Returning to Japan, Suzuki started performing Bach (in an historically-informed manner) with family and friends, centred at Kobe Shoin Women’s University where he was on the teaching staff. An invitation to perform Bach cantatas and the Magnificat at the inaugural concert of a new hall in Osaka in 1990 marked the real beginnings of the Bach Collegium Japan. From the beginning, the ensemble was a mixture of Japanese and European musicians. By 1995 Suzuki had attracted the attention of Robert von Bahr, founder and owner of BIS records, and they began recording some of Bach’s early church cantatas, little imagining where this would lead them (even though the first release was labelled ‘Volume 1’). Although other composers featured from early on in the BIS-BCJ partnership (a recording of Monteverdi’s Vespers and Missa In illo tempore), the centre of their activity has always been the music of Bach. Early recordings of the two surviving Passion settings were superseded in the 2020s by critically-acclaimed remakes; the Magnificat, Christmas Oratorio, motets, Mass in B minor and the four short ‘Lutheran’ masses were also recorded.

As well as venturing into Bach’s orchestral works (the ‘Brandenburg’ Concertos and Orchestral Suites), Suzuki also started recording the composer’s organ music – not (at least yet!) a complete survey, but widely-praised programmes combining chorale preludes and ‘free’ preludes and fugues. Meanwhile his son, Masato (who also plays keyboard continuo in BCJ) has recorded the harpsichord concertos, and has just released his own recording of Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Perhaps most adventurously, Suzuki senior has also begun exploring other great jewels of choral music by later composers: Mozart’s Requiem and ‘Great’ C minor Mass, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and ‘Choral’ Symphony. A project to record Mendelssohn’s Elijah and St Paul had to be shelved because of the Covid pandemic. Next up will be Brahms’s German Requiem; further away on the horizon, Suzuki has expressed a desire to record Dvořák’s Stabat mater and Requiem.

This is the sort of trajectory already undertaken by Philppe Herreweghe, but the hallmarks of Suzuki’s performances to date – patience without expressive self-indulgence, underpinned by a deep Christian faith and feel for the texts, and a collaborative environment between top-drawer Japanese and European musicians (including such singers as Carolyn Sampson, Gerd Türk and Roderick Williams) – are sure to reveal new facets of whatever works he tackles. Certainly his recordings of Bach’s vocal works – now collected in a bumper 78-disc box – have a special place in the catalogue. Unhurried and unharried, but exquisitely stylish, these are performances that will appeal to anyone who appreciates deeply-considered music-making, rather than the thrill-a-minute approach of some competitors. They are above all performances to live with, and even as Suzuki himself hands over more day-to-day directorial responsibility to his son Masato, we hope that this distinguishing feature of BCJ will continue.

All the Bach Collegium Japan’s recordings for BIS are currently on special offer: browse them at your leisure by clicking on the link below!

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