Monday 11 April 2016

Elegant Bach - Mass in B Minor from Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan

Masaaku Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan - photo credit Mark Allan / Barbican
Masaaku Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan - photo credit Mark Allan / Barbican
Bach Mass in B Minor; Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki; Barbican Centre
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Apr 08 2016
Star rating: 4.5

In a performance that was all of a piece, Suzuki and his forces made the best of a venue not designed for this repertoire.

London is lucky to have had two consecutive weekends of Bach treats. And I was lucky to have been at two very different performances of the B minor Mass in under a week. Though neither venue, Kings Place nor the Barbican Hall, is ideal for the work, it was interesting to hear how performers work with the space they have – and we are grateful that they do. 

Following on from the Feinstein Ensemble's performance at Kings Place (see review), the Bach Collegium Japan and its founder Masaaki Suzuki started their short residency at the Barbican with Bach's B minor Mass on Friday 8 April 2016, followed by a study day and further concerts on the Saturday and a trip to Saffron Hall on the Sunday. This was also a live Outside Broadcast for BBC Radio 3 and will be on the BBC iPlayer for a month.

Above all, it was An Event. Suzuki’s visits to London are rare, and so the fans were out in force. Suzuki himself is clearly steeped in the music and we could feel the love between him, Bach and his mostly Japanese players and singers. There were 19 singers, arranged behind the band, and with a lot of space behind them, which could have made for a lack of intimacy, but we – and they – got over that.

It started off at a very stately tempo with the Kyrie, moving to an elegant ‘Christe eleison’ duet between sopranos Rachel Nicholls, a late replacement who has Wagner on her CV (gorgeous to hear a luxury voice in this) and Joanne Lunn (who was clearly enjoying wearing her very un-Lutheran frock, slinky black number with the back and sleeves made of lace). For the second Kyrie we were back to the slow tempo that emphasised the complexities of Bach’s sound world.

Masaaku Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan - photo credit Mark Allan / Barbican
Masaaku Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan
photo credit Mark Allan / Barbican
By the Gloria we (and they) had got used to the acoustic of the Barbican Hall. It was like the first Prom of the season; it takes a while to adjust our ears and brains to the Royal Albert Hall’s idiosyncrasies. The strings played as though they were one instrument and we were completely enveloped by it all. The 'Laudamus te' duet between soprano Joanne Lunn and violinist Ryo Terakodo felt a little too detached to be a proper conversation – but that could have been due to the hall. The 'Domine Deus' was cool and poised, Rachel Nicholls and tenor Colin Balzer weaving in and around the two flutes. Countertenor Robin Blaze sat out for the choral numbers, possibly saving his voice for the solos – or rather his duet with the oboe, presumably Masamitsu San’nomiya who would not have sounded or looked out of place in a Parisian boîte de nuit. For the 'Quoniam', the duet partnership was the bass-baritone Dominik Wörner and Olivier Picon on a natural horn that he pointed upwards in order to get the impact he wanted – it seemed he had the biggest challenge with the acoustics. The segue to the 'Cum Santo Spiritu' was thrilling, with spectacular trumpets and timpani coming into their own.

The Credo was a piece of gripping storytelling on the part of the musicians: the light and shade, the tempo choices and the ambiguity of the harmony as we spiral down at the 'Crucifixus', are jolted into the 'Et resurrexit' and eventually to the 'Confiteor'. Suzuki’s control of the dynamics drew attention to Bach’s supreme craftsmanship in the service of his faith: the messiness of ‘one baptism for the remission of sins’ and the exhilarating ‘looking for the resurrection of the dead and the life to come’, with the definitive full stop after ‘Amen’.

The rollicking Sanctus, recycled for the B minor Mass from a six-part chorus performed at Christmas 1724, had a heady quality that only lacked the incense mentioned by musicologist Donald Tovey in his description of the work. Everything calmed down until the Agnus Dei, Blaze accompanied by the heartbeat of the lower strings, and finally the stillness of the 'Dona nobis pacem'.

This performance was very much ‘a work’ – looking back at last week’s B minor Mass by the Feinstein Ensemble and Tim Jones’ talk. It all was of a piece, with musicians who all share Suzuki’s vision of it and made the Barbican’s acoustic work, most of the time.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) Mass in B minor BWV 232

Bach Collegium Japan
Masaaki Suzuki – conductor
Rachel Nicholls – soprano
Joanne Lunn – soprano
Robin Blaze – countertenor
Colin Balzer – tenor
Dominik Wörner – bass-baritone

Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan on disc:
Bach - Mass in B minor
Bach - Complete sacred cantatas
Bach - Lutheran Masses II
Bach - Secular Cantatas, Vol. 6

Elsewhere on this blog:


  1. Dear Robert. Lovely review from Ruth but do you think you could correct my name. I'm not Rachel Kelly or Rachel Nicholl... As radio 3 announced me as Rebecca I'm feeling a little sad.

    1. Apologies, I don't know where that came from. Blame my bad sub-editing, but all corrected now I hope.

    2. Thanks so much :-)


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