Pages

Wednesday, 31 May 2006

Out of Tune

We went to the Barbican last night for the performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor by Bach Collegium Japan under Masaaki Suzuki. Suzuki's work is something that I'm only familiar with from listening to the Radio when I've heard a number of his Bach cantata performances, which have always seemed impressive.


I am one of those people who find Bach best listened to when performed with very few singers, preferably one per part (but of course you have to have good singers). I knew that Suzuki would not subscribe to this, after all I'd heard some of his recorded performances and knew that he'd studied with Ton Koopman. But somehow, I still found myself out of tune with the performance.


Suzuki's way with the music was quite measured and rather sombre. Granted, there were lively moments and the articulation of the orchestra was excellent, sometimes a little at the expense of line. But my overall impression was of the darker, quieter hues. Perhaps it was because we were sitting at the side of the hall, hidden by the harpsichord. An instrument, incidentally, which seemed curiously reticent in the ensembles at moments when I felt it should not be reticent at all.


When performing with a decent size choir (18 singers to around 20 instrumentalists), Bach presents the conductor with a number of problems of balance. In the fugal opening of the Kyrie, the choir's first entry comes after a long orchestral peroration and each voice should enter simply as part of the texture. But what frequently happens is that the choir suddenly dominates and instead of being an equal partner the orchestra's role degenerates into one of buzzing accompaniment. Some conductors have solved this problem by getting the initial entries sung by just one voice with the main chorus coming in later. Suzuki's solution, which was almost successful, was to have the chorus subdue its tone. Perhaps this set the general timbre for the evening. But at least the balance in the performance was pretty good and there were not too many moments when you felt that the chorus was master. Though there were times when individual musicians could have been more prominent. This was very noticeable when flutes and oboes had been prominent during one of the solo sections, but suddenly disappeared when the chorus came in.


I felt his general attitude to be quite Romantic, which is perfectly valid. After all, I don't subscribe to the view that everyone needs to perform Bach in the way that I want. Perhaps it just didn't chime in with my feelings that evening.


Amongst the soloists, alto Robin Blaze particularly impressed. His lovely bright voice with its wonderfully edge and sense of line came over as a breath of fresh air in the performance.


Of course, what people will tell me is that what counts is Suzuki's wonderful musicianship and his spiritual way with Bach. But I'm afraid, last night this rather washed over me and all I was left with was a picky little voice in my head, pointing out things. I just hope that Ariodante at ENO tomorrow finds me more responsive, after all it does have Alice Coote in the title role.

No comments:

Post a comment