The Consolation of Bach

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Haydnseek
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The Consolation of Bach

Post by Haydnseek » Fri May 26, 2006 9:22 pm

The consolation of Bach
By Shirley Apthorp
Published: May 25 2006 18:22 | Last updated: May 25 2006 18:22

Masaaki Suzuki is tired of being asked how a Japanese ensemble could possibly be so good at Bach.

“Actually, it’s a really shocking question,” he says. “There’s nothing strange about playing Bach in Japan. For Japanese musicians, Bach’s music is absolutely fundamental. Bach is Bach.”

Suzuki glances out of the window of his Valencia hotel, the second stop on a European tour that will take his Bach Collegium Japan on to long-overdue debuts in Amsterdam and London.

“I mean, look at all those palm trees out there. What has the culture in Valencia got to do with the music of Bach? But this is still the reaction from all kinds of European musicians to Bach’s music in Japan.”

Connoisseurs agree that Suzuki’s recordings of Bach cantatas are the best being released on CD today. And they sell. Eleven years ago, the Swedish label BIS took on the Japanese cantata project. This month, the 31st volume was released. With glowing reviews and a loyal audience around the world, the series is thriving.

Suzuki’s European colleagues have not fared so well. John Eliot Gardiner’s much-heralded Bach Cantata Pilgrimage was unceremoniously dumped by Deutsche Grammophon when only a handful of CDs had been released. Ton Koopman’s project was scotched by Erato’s parent company Warner Classics when 12 volumes had been released. Both conductors had to found their own labels to finish the job.

Suzuki’s shock is only feigned. He knows exactly how unlikely it is that a Japanese ensemble playing baroque music on original instruments should be leading the field. Japan, self- conscious about western art music at the best of times, has lagged well behind in the field of early music. At least until recently.

“Western classical music is a minority interest in Japan, even compared with Korea,” agrees Suzuki. “The early music scene is still a minority within that minority. But it has changed a lot over the past 15 years. Interest is growing.”

A journalist friend, he relates, recently researched the use of the word “cantata” in the Japanese press. Before 1995, the word was unknown. When Suzuki’s BIS recordings began to hit the shops, the references started.

“Now it is used quite often, mostly nothing to do with our activity. The annual assembly of the choir federation is called ‘Choir Cantata’. There is a dance show called ‘Cantata of the Stars’. And I recently saw a poster for something called ‘The Fashion Cantatas’. I have no idea why!”

The following evening, in Valencia’s light-flooded Palau de la Música, Suzuki and his ensemble show precisely why they are succeeding where so many have failed. The Bach Collegium Japan performs with lean forces, seldom more than two or three voices per part. Intonation is flawless and diction crystal clear, textures are transparent and luminous. Best of all are the tempi, always buoyant, never rushed. The effect is an atmosphere of rapt joy.

“Personally, I have a strong tendency to do everything too quickly,” Suzuki admits. “That is why I hold back all the time, to show more details. The more velocity you have, the less you can show. It’s obvious. If you take the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka you don’t see anything of the trees and flowers by the railway.

“We record in the Kobe Shoin Women’s University chapel, which has quite a reverberant acoustic, so you cannot take tempi that are too fast. Of course there is no such thing as the right tempo. You have to find a balance.”

Suzuki likes to talk about balance. With his shoulder-length grey hair, neat beard, poise and cheerful serenity, he could easily pass for a cult leader or Zen guru. In fact, he grew up in one of Japan’s few Protestant families, becoming the organist of his local church at the age of 12. He went on to study in Amsterdam, to teach the harpsichord in Duisburg and, after his return to Japan, to found his ensemble. Throughout his travels, he retained the sense of simple piety that still informs everything he does.

“Bach’s cantatas are a form of worship in themselves. His music is very practical, and it still works perfectly in our time. The texts are all about the journey of the soul towards eternal joy. And if something awful happens in your life, if somebody close to you dies, for example, human beings cannot console you with words. But music can provide real consolation.

“Thirteen of Bach’s 20 children died before the age of 10. He knew very well about death. And I am sure that he never got used to it. He must have been very sensitive. He lived at a time when incred-ible numbers of people died. And music was one of the few things that could really help.”

Of course, adds Suzuki, listeners of Bach’s time had a more direct connection to the composer’s musical symbols and references. A four-note figure of two descending pairs of notes depicted a cross that every contemporary listener would have seen vividly. Plays on numbers abound – three for divinity, four for humanity, seven for perfection. In the Valencia programme book, Suzuki has added the printed texts of the chorale tunes quoted in Bach’s “Magnificat”, references that 18th-century audiences would have read as easily as a newspaper. If you understand the texts, he says, you understand the music.

Pressed for the secret of his success, Suzuki looks bemused.

“The first guy to perform the complete cantatas of Bach was Bach. I think it is quite normal, and the best way to understand the cantatas. I must say, though, I never decided to record the complete cantatas. I still haven’t. We have passed the halfway mark now, and I am curious to see whether we can complete them. But all I actually want to do is to keep playing them. That’s all. That’s my life.”


The Bach Collegium Japan will perform in Leipzig on Saturday, Nuremberg on May 28 and London on May 30


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Post by Lance » Fri May 26, 2006 9:48 pm

I really like Suzuki's attitude towards life and music. Wish I could hear him perform one day.
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jbuck919
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Post by jbuck919 » Fri May 26, 2006 10:17 pm

Way out from left field: Many years ago I read the novel In This House of Breed by Rumer Godden. It was about a monastery of contemplative nuns in England, and one of the things they do is make a foundation in Japan. The Japanese sponsor says something like, "We love you for the monody of your chant. Japanese hate polyphony."

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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