Bach Collegium Japan: Non nisi mota cano 

Bach would have been baffled and delighted to see a good handful of Japanese perform his music as well as he likely never heard in his own lifetime. Baffled that they were playing his music at all; that they didn’t look like your usual Leipzig town folk; that it sounded more or less like it did back then. Pure conjecture, of course, but while at it, we should consider that he’d probably have preferred Stokowski’s way with his music – if only for novelty’s sake, not Masaaki Suzuki’s “authentic” approach with the Bach Collegium Japan as seen and heard at the Library of Congress last Friday.

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J.S. Bach, Cantatas vol.30, Suzuki/BCJ
The convenient thing about Historically Informed Performance ("HIP") groups is that they travel light. None of the works on the all-Bach program (Suite no.2, Keyboard Concerto BWV 1052, Double Violin Concerto BWV 1043, Brandenburg no.5) saw more than 9 performers on stage. At the center of it all was Mr. Suzuki on a harpsichord, beautifully adorned on the inside – inscribed with the Latin phrase so popular for instruments: (Viva fui in sylvis sum dura occisa securi) DVM VIXI TACUI MORTVA DVLCE CANO; (Once alive in the woods, I was cut down by the hard ax) While alive, silent; now dead, I sing sweetly – but covered with the worst trompe l’œil faux marble on the outside… reminiscent of camouflage.

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J.S. Bach, Orchestral Overtures, Suzuki/BCJ
Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, Bach Collegium Japan (Washington Post, March 27)
If so, Suzuki was certainly not hiding and blistered away at his usual brisk speeds. The string section – two violins, one viola, cello, bass – were all outfitted with gut strings and baroque bows and sounded plenty “authentic” alright… enough to have given Pinchas Zukerman cause for further caustic remarks regarding intonation and pitch. But any even just slightly more appreciative soul would have been amazed at their dedication and the purpose that drove their performance to an intensity that absorbed all the wrong or dropped or – yes: out of tune – notes with ease. Flutist Liliko Maeda was superb in the orchestral suite; simply refusing to run out of air and (alone among her colleagues) with a rock-steady pitch and intonation.

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J.S. Bach, Cantatas vol.29, Suzuki/BCJ
Violinist Natsumi Wakamatsu already showed her extraordinary sensibility in the first half of the program (markedly better than her colleagues Ryo Terakado who disappointed and Azumi Takada and Yuko Takeshima who fiddled amiably in the background), but it was the d-minor Concerto for Two Violins where she truly shone with a deep, unassuming musicality and an even, smooth, humble tone. Despite her and Ms. Maeda’s performance and Suzuki’s crazed, dashing harpsichord playing (never afraid of the occasional wrong note, bringing a sense of excitement to the table), it must be said that an ensemble of a lesser name would have gotten a notably cooler response from the audience for an identical performance: One ought to expect even more from the Bach Collegium Japan. After all, it is that group that is responsible for what is rightly considered the over-all best cantata cycle (on the BIS label). Those recordings, benefiting from studio perfection easily stand up to the aged Harnoncourt/Leonhart, the semi-authentic Rilling, the incomplete Richter, the also-almost-finished Koopman, the uneven Leusink. A side effect of this performance was, that my respect for the Gardiner cantata cycle – recorded live – has only increased: More than ever, now, the Soli Deo Gloria recordings seem a wondrous thing of unbelievable accuracy.

The concert was certainly good enough not to need ‘salvaging’, per se, but a knock-out performance of the fifth Brandenburg Concerto – again with Ms. Maeda and her traverso – helped the evening to a satisfying, joyous end. Minor balance problems and continuous intonation problems aside (perhaps placing the flute center, in front of the harpsichord, would have helped?), this was less driven and more flexible than the suite and contained another reckless solo of Suzuki’s. No wonder the audience demanded an encore – which they got, in form of the Air from the D-major suite BWV 1068.

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