For a year and a half since their European tour was cut short due to the outbreak of the pandemic, Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan have been grounded in Japan, with all international tours cancelled. Still, they have continued to perform domestically despite restrictions and distancing on stage. One positive outcome has been that the pandemic situation has given opportunities for several of their Japanese singers to shine on stage, since previously BCJ tended to feature international singers as soloists. In their latest concert at their Tokyo home, the Takemitsu Memorial Hall at Tokyo Opera City, four of their singers stepped out as soloists.

Masaaki Suzuki
© Rikimaru Hotta

The concept of this concert was to celebrate the 300th wedding anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach and his second wife Anna Magdalena (who was a talented soprano), through music associated with the couple and the Court of Köthen, where they were married in 1721. The programme included Bach’s Fourth Orchestral Suite and the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, as well as some vocal gems from the Notebooks for Anna Magdalena Bach, which are rarely performed in public. Indeed, Suzuki told us that even though BCJ have recorded 99% of Bach’s vocal music, they haven’t recorded these!

They set the joyous mood of the concert with the jubilant Orchestral Suite in the brilliant key of D major, which is thought to have originated in Bach’s Köthen days. With the sonorous strings and the continuo group in the middle, and the trio of reedy Baroque oboes and punchy natural trumpets/timpani placed on either side, they created a truly festive atmosphere. The solemn French-style overture (with a sprightly fugue in 9/8 time) was followed by three pairs of dances. In particular, the bassoon solo in Bourrée II was delivered with dexterity and charm.

Meanwhile, the popular Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, another piece in D major and also associated with the Köthen period (2021 marks 300th anniversary of the work’s dedication to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt), was performed one player to a part plus continuo, so only seven players on stage. Soloists Suzuki (harpsichord), BCJ leader Natsumi Wakamatsu (violin), and Yoko Tsuruta (Baroque flute) led an intimate ensemble that was elegant and conversational, although at times a little too delicate to fill an 1800-seater hall. Suzuki’s solo cadenza was mesmerising, flowing naturally from his fingers as if improvising on the spot.

Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan
© Rikimaru Hotta

In between these instrumental works, the audience got a glimpse of domestic music-making in the Bach household through the pieces from the Notebooks for Anna Magdalena Bach. Sweet-voiced Aki Matsui gave a radiant account of the soprano version of the famous aria “Schlummert ein” (from Cantata No. 82); meanwhile, a light-hearted love song, Aria di Giovannini, was shared affectionately by Matsui and bright-voiced tenor Makoto Sakurada, suggesting an image of Bach and his wife duetting at home.

The second half featured Bach’s wedding cantata, Herr Gott, Beherrscher aller Dinge BWV 120a, written in Leipzig in 1729. A grand and festive eight-movement work in two parts with chorus, it gave us an insight to a Lutheran church wedding of the time. Although Bach reuses some of his previous music, one would not know it as they are so perfectly adapted to the text that blesses the newly wedded couple. Powerful bass Yusuke Watanabe was articulate in his recitatives, meanwhile countertenor Hiroya Aoki and tenor Sakurada created warm harmony in their duet with lovely obligato on two oboe d’amore. Since Bach reused the music of the opening chorus in Et expecto in the Mass in B minor, Suzuki and BCJ gave the most joyous performance of the movement as an encore – in Suzuki’s own words, so that we could “gain new energy” from this music at this difficult time. We certainly came out invigorated.