Masaaki Suzuki & Juilliard415
Tuesday 30 May 2017, 7:30pm, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Presented by Chamber Music New Zealand
A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs
Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major – J S Bach (1685-1750)
Concerto for 2 Violins in D Minor – J S Bach (1685-1750)
Cantata 82a Ich habe genug – J S Bach (1685-1750)
Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major – J S Bach (1685-1750)
Rebecca Farley (soprano)
Jonathan Slade (flute)
The short story (tldr):
We were completely, and delightedly, transported – with a few reservations – by Masaaki Suzuki and Juilliard415 in an authentic Baroque style. Their consummate deliberation was matched by their concentration, their absorption, tempered with enthusiasm and their sense of enjoyment. They were completely ‘into’ the music.
It was a winning combination!
The long story:
I have heard Johann Sebastian Bach compositions in a bewildering range of ensembles and instruments: from the modern instruments to jazz combos; guitar or clarinet or trombone chamber groups; marimbas or vocal ensembles; even a koto orchestra! But the genius of J S Bach shone through every rendition.
This concert matched an expert Bach scholar/conductor/performer, Masaaki Suzuki, with a university Historical Performance period-instrument ensemble, Juilliard415 from Manhattan, New York, to perform four of the composer’s works. And we were completely, and delightedly, transported.
From the tuning process it was immediately apparent that we were listening to ‘period’ instruments. The tuning was apropos, discriminating and exact: from harpsichord to the cello via the concertmaster, then the other strings and finally the woodwind. The strings had no fine tuners and gut strings – susceptible to temperature and humidity. Maybe the instruments were modern copies, but the style and the treatment was authentically ‘period’. The cellos had no end pins so they were balanced on the thighs and calves of the players and the upper strings had no chin rest, almost a fiddle position. The bow position was well up the stick, away from the frog, and their vibrato was non-existent. The wooden oboes, the flute and the bassoon were devoid of most of the keys that the modern instruments use. The bow speed was rapid, ornamentation appropriate, hemiolas prominent and the range of dynamics were contained: more stratified stresses than bow pressure.
For me, this described the focal point of the concert: commitment. All of the player were committed to playing with an authentic Baroque style. Their consummate deliberation was matched by their concentration and their absorption, tempered with enthusiasm and a sense of enjoyment. They were completely ‘into’ the music. It was a winning combination!
The first and last pieces were Orchestral Suites in the French style: an Ouverture and a set of dance movements. Massaki led the ensemble with a crisp, fast tempo.
In the Orchestral Suite No. 1 the second Gavotte had a remarkable arpeggio fanfare from the upper strings with the oboes dancing in the upper register. That was followed by a Forlane – I confess I had to look up my encyclopaedia. Apparently it is a French version of a ‘forlana’, a traditional Venetian dance. The two Menuett were completely different – the first was lively and the second more sombre and protracted. The Bourée I was very fast and airy. The Bourée II was given to the three woodwinds – I was reminded that, in a later period, the second dance would be a ‘Trio‘.
The final piece, Orchestral Suite No. 3, began with a robust and joyful Ouverture. Juilliard451 was confident with this piece demonstrated by the amount of eye contact between the players – and the sense of enjoyment. The second movement was the so-called ‘Air on a G String‘ – a portentous, wistful rendition with inevitable delicate overlaying of the polyphonic counterpoint. The Gavotte was a complete change – a syncopated, cheerful dance. The last movement, a Gigue, was almost bucolic or rustic – a peasant dance, building to a rousing coda.
I have only two reservations about the concert – one minor and one major.
Masaaki Suzuki is an expert, an accomplished scholar and performer and his conductorship of Juilliard415 was authoritative and legitimate. But I think the practiced ensemble could direct themselves – with eye contact and the leadership of the concertmaster or the harpsichordist. Last week I attended a concert led by Jazz legend Rodger Fox with the NZSM Big Band. His style was mostly ‘hands-off’ – giving the tempo and the ‘downbeat’ and only signalling important places in the score with a pointed finger. I get that Massaki’s involvement and the response to the music could be visceral but certainly his gestures could be more minimal, indicating certain dynamic or tempo changes.
The other major reservation was balance. Bach’s Concerto for 2 Violins in D Minor is one of my favourite pieces and the two soloists, drawn out of the ensemble, were quite marvellous. They pirouetted and scintillated on the front of the stage, but I couldn’t distinguish their sound from the ensemble’s ambient accompaniment. I felt their tone should be more prominent, or the ensemble muted.
The Cantata suffered the same fate: the soprano was excellent – a pure, full-bodied tone with a minimal use of vibrato – but the obbligato flute was lost in the string texture, particularly lower is his register. The Cantata itself was amazing. In three arias and two recitatives Bach captures the whole gamut of emotion, thinking and philosophy about end of life care.
Not get me wrong: the Concerto and the Cantata were outstanding. All the things I have mentioned about the performer’s commitment, absorption and the enthusiasm were there for the whole concert.