The Celebrity Series of Boston brought the Baroque instrument ensemble Bach Collegium Japan to Jordan Hall last Sunday, where a knowing and enthusiastic audience was treated to Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi from solo instrumentalists of the ensemble plus the soprano Joanne Lunn who sports an impressive British resumé.
Abundant bright spirits were abetted by leader Masaaki Suzuki’s invariably brisk tempi, which worked to the music’s advantage almost all of the time.
Since its founding in 1990, the ensemble has established itself as a leading interpreter of J.S. Bach’s choral and orchestral music. Its recently completed recorded survey of all the Bach cantatas has garnered worldwide praise, and Suzuki was awarded the Leipzig Bach Medal in 2012 and the Royal Academy of Music Bach Prize in 2013. So, we were clearly in good hands.
Interestingly, the most successful performances were those of Vivaldi’s Recorder Concerto in C Major, RV 443, and Oboe Concerto in C Major, RV 450. To the latter, Masamitsu San’nomiya brought elegant phrasing, pleasingly present tone and extraordinarily fleet fingering. But he worked in the considerable shadow cast by Andreas Böhlen’s total mastery of the tiny sopranino recorder; his essay of his concerto left many in audience grasping (and gasping) for an adequate reaction to such remarkable virtuosity. For this, plus his elegant musicianship throughout, he was awarded a boisterous standing ovation.
J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047 served as a bright and festive opener. Guy Ferber essayed the famously challenging high trumpet part on a tiny coiled trumpet with only bored holes to aid his lips. Suzuki directed with authority from a largely inaudible harpsichord, cuing with only the subtlest of indications. The one-on-a-part ensemble, with the continuo part played by both cello and violone gave many satisfactions
The first half closed with Lunn’s singing of Handel’s Gloria in B-flat Major. This recently (2001) rediscovered early work betrays the composer’s fascination with Italianate musical style from his Italian travels of 1706-1709. Lightly scored for soprano, two violins and continuo, it offers a considerable challenge to the singer. Several of its six movements abound in rushing roulades of rapid declamation of text. Lunn’s charming stage presence, and technique seemed fully up to the task. But an inconsistent voicing of vowels at several moments troubled me—only carefully placed consonants carried at those moments, thus undoing an otherwise a nicely connected vocal line. This was not helped by Suzuki’s quick tempi; indeed the final tempo of the piece was so blistering that I feared Lunn might run off the rails, but she gamely held on and finished with grace.
The concert’s second half opened with J.S. Bach’s Flute Sonata in E Minor, BWV 1034. It’s an interesting work with an interesting history. Steven Ledbetter’s note told us “…Christoph Wolff now dates the sonata at approximately 1724, the beginning of Bach’s Leipzig period. If this is the correct date, it would fall right about the time that Bach was writing particularly elaborate flute parts in his cantatas, suggesting the presence of a superb player at that time.”
Kiyomi Suga was the very capable soloist. Perhaps due to the low-ish tessitura and the dark timbre of her wood flauto traverso this performance sounded low and not particularly bright, quite different from all the music that had preceded it. Yet she displayed elegance and remarkable breath control, nicely tapering the ends of her sustained phrases. Continuo ‘cellist Emmanuel Balssa, a strong presence throughout this concert, was almost equal partner with Suga in the exposition of this music. And, thankfully, Suzuki’s harpsichord was now completely audible.
Lunn returned with J.S. Bach’s Cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51. In this she was joined by trumpeter Guy Ferber, this time on a long tubed instrument, with a smaller scale, trombone-like structure. This, too, appeared to have only small bored holes instead of valves. These two soloists worked well together in this joyful work—Ferber almost flawless, Lunn bright and cheerful in her vocal lines though she once again exhibited her unusual eschewing of an occasional vowel. Bottom line, though, this was a fitting and upbeat end to a most impressive concert.
But wait, there was more: Lunn, oboist San’nomiya and the ensemble encored with the cheerful finale of Bach’s Cantata No. 199, the entirely apt text is, “Wie freudig ist mein Herz” (How joyful is my heart.)
John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 34 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 40 years.