Bach Collegium Japan at their finest in joyous moments of Mass in B minor
Looking at the solemn faces of the Bach Collegium Japan musicians onstage at Valparaiso University it was hard not to feel that the minds of many were on their families and countrymen back home who were dealing with the devastation wrought by the earthquake and tsunami.
Conductor Masaaki Suzuki brought his celebrated ensemble to the Indiana university Saturday night as part of a five-city U.S. tour, which will take them to Carnegie Hall on Tuesday.
Now in its 21st season, Bach Collegium Japan has earned an international following, in no small part due to its ambitious recording project on the Bis label, with forty volumes released to date in its series of the complete Bach sacred cantatas.
The Mass in B minor, performed Saturday in the university’s vast Chapel of the Resurrection, certainly seemed an apt work for the musicians and the audience with Bach’s late masterwork an epic canvas offering an array of spiritual expression and a prevailing Lenten message of joy and solace.
Suzuki proved a sure guide through this vast work, judging tempos well and eliciting notably spirited playing from the 28 members of the period-instrument chamber orchestra.
The Japanese musicians have clearly made great strides in historically informed Baroque style. Concertmaster Ryo Terakado showed himself an idiomatic hand contributing a notably stylish obbligato violin solo in Laudamus Te. (Suzuki has the spotlighted instrumentalists stand along with the vocal soloists, a nice retro gesture.)
Woodwinds were particularly impressive with fine, woody colors from the bubbling oboes and mellow flutes. Brass—all non-Japanese musicians—proved more variable with trumpets inconsistent and shaky horn playing.
The 21-member choir, however, was composed almost entirely of Japanese singers and sang with wonderful verve and rhythmic incisiveness under Suzuki’s direction. Words, however, were not always distinct, even from the fourth row—though that may have been due to the cavernous venue as much as any fault of the choir.
A seasoned and stylish Bach hand, Suzuki chose brisk tempos and elicited vital, often brilliant playing and choral singing. The rejoicing aspect of the mass was especially vividly conveyed in Cum Sancto Spiritu, as was the exuberance of Et resurrexit, the majestic praise of the Sanctus, and, especially, the sweep and sense of cumulative strength in the concluding Dona nobis pacem.
Yet for all the scrupulous musicianship and idiomatic, historically informed playing and singing, one often wanted more idiosyncrasy and individuality. At times, particularly in the opening Missa section, the performance settled into a kind of bland efficiency.
More problematic was that while the joyous aspect was vividly conveyed, the deeper and more expressive moments felt skimmed over, both in the solo and choral singing.
Where, for instance, was the mystery of Et incarnatus est and the stark darkness of the Crucifixus? While polished and sensitive, there was a lack of emotional intensity that too often missed the greater spiritual depths of this extraordinary work.
The five European soloists proved solid vocally and technically assured if also a bit anodyne interpretively.
The women fared best. Hana Blazikova displayed a pure silvery voice, and Rachel Nicholls contributed a warmly sung Laudamus te, both sopranos doubling as leaders of their choir sections.
Tenor Gerd Türk offered an ardently sung Benedictus. Bass Peter Kooij sang capably if a bit stolidly with a rather worn tone. Countertenor Clint van der Linde has a rather metallic sound and while he brought sensitive phrasing to his solos, both Qui sedes and the Agnus Dei—two high points of the work—went for little.
Saturday’s concert was presented by the Bach Institute, an admirable component of the university, devoted to Bach’s music and a theological perspective on his works. For more information, go to http://www.valpo.edu/bach/.