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Review: Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan’s impeccable taste shows at Disney Hall

Masaaki Suzuki photographed in 2003.

Masaaki Suzuki photographed in 2003.

(Keizo Kitajima )
Los Angeles Times Music Critic

Given our Pacific Rim cultural credibility, Los Angeles has had a puzzlingly slender connection with Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan, Asia’s leading early music ensemble.

Founded by Suzuki in 1990, it made its L.A. debut only in 2003 at UCLA with back-to-back performances of both of Bach’s two great passions. Suzuki returned three years later with the Collegium for a pristine concert of Bach instrumental pieces.

Finally, on Sunday night, Suzuki came to Walt Disney Concert Hall. The program for a small Collegium contingent and guest soprano Joanne Lunn was unusual for a keyboard player and conductor who has specialized almost exclusively in Bach, including a celebrated, beautifully recorded (and, at $1,580.75 on Amazon, horrendously expensive) 55-CD cycle of Bach’s sacred cantatas. He has also recorded much of Bach’s instrumental music.

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But along with the expected Bach, Suzuki’s Disney visit made rare forays into Vivaldi and Handel. Even more surprising was not only the popular nature of the program but its downright jolly overall tone.

No, Suzuki, known for his spiritual serenity, has not sold out. He can still boast having one of the few venerable early music groups not to have recorded Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” He remains as scholarly in his single-minded respect for musical tradition as ever. He continues to expunge the extraneous in performances that have the quality of a refreshing purification rite.

Well, there was ornate musical decoration Sunday, and a tad more flair than expected from Suzuki. Still, everything remained in impeccable taste.

Suzuki is a cool customer with long, straight white hair who exudes a priest-like air when he leads his players from the harpsichord. His approach is that of a chamber music leader. He doesn’t conduct. But he is clearly in charge.

There is similar cucumber coolness to the players as well. But that only makes their virtuosity all the more memorable, especially when the disarmingly sly Suzuki pushes them almost to edge while hardly seeming to move.

The program began with Bach’s Second “Brandenburg” Concerto, the one with the devilish high trumpet solo. Guy Ferber played on a coiled Baroque trumpet that has no valves. The nerve-rackingly finicky instrument gave him some trouble, as it must have every trumpet player in Bach’s day. But when Ferber nailed a passage, the effect was exhilarating in a way it could never be with a brighter, louder and far more secure modern valve instrument.

The evening featured wind instruments. Andreas Böhlen broke speed records in Vivaldi’s well-known Recorder Concerto in C Major, RV 443. His flights of fancy on the sopranino recorder relied on elaborately soulful ornamentation in the slow movement, accompanied by two violins and viola that played with gossamer grace.

Suzuki accompanied Kiyomi Suga in Bach’s Flute sonata. It was one of the few times all evening the pinprick finesse of his playing wasn’t covered by an ensemble. But he nonetheless directed attention to the mellow beauty of a keyless wood flute, which Suga played with a rich expressivity that demonstrated the Baroque instrument’s commonality with the ancient Japanese shakuhachi.

Masamitsu San’nomiva was the soloist on slender Baroque oboe in Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor, RV 463. An understated and dashing oboist, San’nomiva tossed off phrases with the collected passionate dispassion of a jazz soloist, an aesthetic perfectly in accord with that of the Bach Collegium Japan.

The two pieces for Lunn were Handel’s Gloria in B-Flat, HWV deest, and Bach’s Cantata No. 51, “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen” (Rejoice in God Throughout the Lands). Both are joyous. When the lost Gloria was discovered 15 years ago, that was joyous too, the musicological sensation causing a competition to be the first to play it or record it. It is early and hardly major Handel but characteristic.

Lunn, who has recorded several Bach cantatas with John Eliot Gardiner, is a more traditionally dramatic singer than Suzuki has typically used in his own cantata recordings. The trumpet was back for “Jauchzet Gott,” and this time Ferber flawlessly played a more commonly shaped valveless period instrument that might have been made to complement Lunn’s contagiously vibrant soprano.

By all appearances, Suzuki maintained a bemused distance from all this rejoicing. He might well have been playing his barely audible harpsichord for himself. But appearances were no doubt deceiving. There is no way to know this, but the look of Bach on his portraits makes me think that he, steady at the harpsichord controls, would have reacted exactly the same way as Suzuki.

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