in: Reviews

November 13, 2012

Death and Wonder from Masaaki Suzuki


2012 file photo

In some ways Harvard’s Memorial Church was the ideal setting for Friday’s brilliant performance by Masaaki Suzuki and Yale’s renowned Schola Cantorum, augmented by musicians from the Yale Baroque Ensemble of three Bach cantatas. Suzuki is the leader of the Bach Collegium Japan, a group known all over the world for its fine performances of Baroque music on original instruments, and he is now also the leader of the Schola Cantorum. He has immersed himself into Bach’s music — not just into details of performance practice, but also into a deep understanding of the symbolism contained in many of the phrases, and to the liturgical uses to which the music was often put. As a conductor his quiet gestures make music that travels directly to the heart.

The cantatas we heard are full of such symbols. For example, Cantata 150, Nach dir Herr, verlanget mich (For Thee, O Lord, I long), which opened the program, begins with a repeated descending semitone scale, known at least since the time of Monteverdi as the theme of grief, loss, and death. But in Bach’s cantatas it is the text which is primary, and Suzuki is one of the best current conductors at bringing out both the words and the passion behind them. We heard this ability last year, when Suzuki led the Boston Symphony in the Saint John Passion. In spite of the BSO’s unfamiliarity with the style many of the choruses and arias were unusually moving. The acoustics in Boston Symphony Hall did not help — in many of the seats the words were difficult to hear. The same was true in Memorial Church — but more of this later.

The primacy of the text has both musical and acoustic implications. The soloists and the chorus must have superb diction, and the acoustics of the venue must allow that diction to arrive at the audience un-muddled. The Schola Cantorum for the most part excelled in this department. The chorus sang with great enthusiasm and precision, often sounding as one voice. Several of the soloists were spectacular in the clarity with which they sang.

All three cantatas presented were unusual in Bach’s cannon. Cantata 150 is one of the earliest of Bach’s cantatas. It was not composed for a regular church service, but perhaps as a test piece for a position in Mühlhausen. The text is religious, a plea to God to not abandon us in our time of need, shame, and suffering. The scoring is light – two violins (one played by Robert Mealy, the director of the Yale Baroque Ensemble, and the other by Holly Piccoli), bassoon (played with great virtuosity by Nate Helgeson), and basso continuo (Holly Chatham). Oddly, in spite of the great efforts of the soloists and chorus to bring the words across, I had difficulty in understanding them. The violin obbligato often lay in the formant range of the singers, and the words were lost. This almost never happened in the other two cantatas. Perhaps Bach was in the process of learning his skill at presenting text and music. Another factor might have been the pitch. The strings tuned not to concert A 440, but to modern B-flat, thus transposing the piece, which was written in B-minor (old pitch), to C-minor (modern pitch). I have no idea why this transposition was chosen.

The second cantata, the well known BWV 106, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (God’s Time is the very best Time), was composed in Mühlhausen, possibly for a funeral of a former mayor.  The scoring is again light, consisting of  two recorders, beautifully played by Priscilla Smith and Bryan Duerfeldt, a viola da gamba, wonderfully played by Beiliang Zhu, (winner of first prize in the 2012 Bach competition in Leipzig), and continuo (organ and cello.) In this performance neither the two recorders nor the gamba ever interfered with the text, which was precise and clear from both soloists and chorus. Kyle Stegall, tenor, Andrew Padgett, bass, and John Taylor Ward, bass, were particularly outstanding.

Cantata 198, Lass, Fürsten, lass noch einen Strahl (Let, Princess, let still one more glance) (Trauer Ode), was third; written for the funeral of Christiane Eberhardine, Queen of Poland  (She was German and refused to move to Poland,)  its scoring is for full orchestra, violins, violas, two gambas, two cellos, two lutes, oboe, oboe d’amore, flutes, and bass viol. The orchestra was great, the chorus diction perfect.  The soloists, soprano Megan Chartrand, alto Virigina Warnken, tenor  Kyle Stegall,  and bass  John Taylor Ward,  were outstanding. The audience, including this reviewer, was enraptured.

I was fortunate to get a seat in the third row, with the soloists about fifteen feet in front of me. I spoke with several people who were more distantly seated. They were impressed with the diction of the chorus, but admitted that it was pretty hard to hear what they were saying. (It was in German, after all…) But some of them knew German quite well, and it was still hard. I am not familiar with the Church in Mühlhausen, but I have been in the Thomas Kirche in Leipzig. This venue has been extensively studied by Marshall Long in his book “Architectural Acoustics.” Long concludes that in Bach’s time the church was much dryer acoustically than it is now. He estimates the reverberation time as 1.6 seconds —a very low number for such an enormous volume.  The reduction of the reverberation time was deliberately achieved with banners, installed everywhere because of the importance of the spoken word to a Lutheran congregation. The texts in Bach’s cantatas and passions would have been completely understandable in this space – and the intricate complexities of his organ music would have been audible to all.

Alas – acoustics do not scale. Memorial Church looks like text should be just as audible as it was in Leipzig – but this is not the case. The difference is due to time delay. In Memorial Church reflections and reverberation come much quicker than they did in Leipzig, and with greater strength. Both factors make it difficult (but not impossible) to understand speech. There should be no need of amplification in this space — but even with the current loudspeakers system speech is problematic. Although a performance such as we just heard is a delight almost anywhere in the church, when the words are not completely clear, something that Bach and Suzuki found of supreme value is missing. My advice — be aware of acoustic clarity, and sit close in reverberant environments.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.

1 Comment

  1. I more or less immediately received an email from Jude Ziliak, one of the violinists in the performance, with this explanation for the pitch of cantat 150:

    I write to clarify the pitch standards in use in BWV 150, which gave you pause.
    As you can observe in the score, linked below, the bassoon part is written a minor third above the remainder of the instruments. Clearly, Bach was writing for a French bassoon, pitched low, around A=392; the Chorton of the organ in Muhlhausen or Arnsdadt (the exact provenance of this cantata is in some question) was about A=466, a minor third higher than the bassoon pitch. The intention in this cantata, then, is plainly for the strings to tune high, to the organ, as was standard in Venice and some other places. “Transposition” is thus a misnomer for the procedure in question.

    I want to thank him for the comment – I think it is fascinating that what we think of as “old pitch” is not necessarily lower than modern pitch. It can also be higher!

    Comment by David Griesinger — November 13, 2012 at 7:45 pm

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