What particularly intrigued me about this all-Bach concert at Milton Court Concert Hall by the Academy of Ancient Music, directed from the keyboard by Masato Suzuki, was the way the programme was put together: it felt like listening to a digital playlist or mixtape of Bach’s cantatas, an increasingly popular way of listening to music in the 21st century. The focus of the programme were the two cantatas for bass, Ich habe genug (BWV82) and Ich will den Kreuzstarb gerne tragen (BWV56) – with Benjamin Appl as soloist and no choir – but these were surrounded by a rather quirky selection of arias and movements from other cantatas, some familiar and some lesser known.

Benjamin Appl
© Lars Borges | Sony Classical

I’m sure many came to hear Appl, a sought-after young baritone whose career has really taken off, especially as a lieder recitalist. He is no stranger to Bach’s sacred works either, having sung the Passions and Magnificat and recorded a disc of cantata arias, and he sang with beautiful poise and impeccable attention to the text. However, especially in Ich habe genug in the first half, he sounded a little subdued and there was a sense that he was treading cautiously. Of course, it’s not exactly a cheerful cantata – it sings of a longing for death and to be with God – but the solo part is highly exposed and one really needs to be at ease with Bach’s rhetoric. Perhaps one reason was that the vocal range of the cantatas lies slightly low for his voice, especially the low notes in the gorgeous slumber aria “Schlummert ein”. Still, the aria was beautifully paced, with flowing oboe solo by Leo Duarte and warm playing from the strings, especially the violas. Appl seemed more at ease in the single arias “Mache dich” from St Matthew Passion and “Es ist vollbracht” from Cantata BWV159, which he sang with poignancy and compassion.

This was Suzuki’s conducting debut in the UK, although as continuo player he has already appeared with the highly acclaimed Bach Collegium Japan, founded by his father Masaaki (and incidentally BCJ’s next London concert will be at the Barbican Hall on 10 March). Suzuki is a skilled multitasker, as most baroque musicians probably were, sometimes conducting energetically with both hands, sometimes conducting whilst playing continuo on the organ, sometimes accompanying on the harpsichord and, in the second half, playing a virtuosic organ solo part in the two cantata sinfonias that were subsequently remoulded into his D minor Harpsichord Concerto. Suzuki was effortlessly brilliant in his organ solo and he was sympathetic in accompanying the recitatives. In the conducting department, on the other hand, he will probably need more time to bond with the AAM ensemble, which could sound a little detached. He managed to inject energy in the ensemble movements, but the famous Air on a G string from the third Orchestral Suite felt strangely flat, with the strings not blending with each other.

The third soloist in this concert was Duarte, principal oboe of AAM. Most of the works in this concert featured the baroque oboe (and its cousins oboe da caccia and taille) in some form or another and Duarte certainly displayed plenty of lyricism as well as flair and stamina. In the Sinfonia from Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV21) his plangent tone captured the sense of grief, flowing seamlessly into the “Mache dich” from St Matthew Passion. After the subdued mood of the first half, I particularly enjoyed the vivacious oboe and bass duet in the aria “Endlich wird mein Joch” in the cantata Ich will den Kreuzstarb gerne tragen. Here, finally, Appl showed more liveliness and warmth, supported by harpsichord and bassoon continuo, and charmed us with his innate elegance.