Like the Olympics, it was four years ago since Bach Collegium Japan came to perform an all-Bach programme here in the National Concert Hall in Dublin. This time the programme consisted of three cantatas and a Mass in F major, a spiritually refreshing programme in line with the season of Lent.

Masaaki Suzuki © Marco Borggreve
Masaaki Suzuki
© Marco Borggreve

The BCJ under the ever-thoughtful direction of Masaaki Suzuki gave a lyrical, deeply felt rendition. Since its founding in 1990 by Suzuki, the BCJ have aimed at bringing period instrument performances of the Baroque period to Japanese audiences. With a special affinity for Bach, they have concluded a recording of his complete cantatas, a project which lasted just under 20 years.

From the very opening of the first cantata Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How beautifully shines the morning star) I was much impressed by the choir's warm sound and how well balanced all the sections were as they moulded their lines into one great whole. The orchestra too showed themselves to be utterly engaged with the music, playing with heartfelt fervour. There were a few squalls from the horns and at times they tended to be a shade too dominant.

James Gilchrist brought life and vigour to his recitative secco and the sweet heft of his tenor voice projected well in his later aria. He demonstrated a beautiful control of the coloratura on the repeated word “gesang”. Soprano, Hana Blažíková possesses a pellucid voice, as limpid as the waters of an Alpine lake. The melimas in her aria "Erfüllet, ihr himmlischen göttlichen Flammen" (Fill utterly, you divine celestial flames) rippled and sparkled like sun on water. Bass-Baritone, Christian Immler delivered his recitative secco with a pleasing richness of tone, leaving us hungry to hear more of him later in the programme.

The next cantata Jesu der du meine Seele (Jesus who wrested my soul) BWV78 came as the highlight of the concert. The opening chorus was taken at a lively tempo but Suzuki imbued it with deep emotion, predominantly one of sadness. The answering between the orchestral sections were instinctively felt and masterfully executed. The duet was taken at an upbeat tempo; mercurial and fleet-footed, the soprano and countertenor Damien Guillon wove their melodies together with great dexterity and élan. Guillon’s fine voice made for a quartet of excellent soloists. Capturing the dramatic nature of the text of redemption from sin and death, Gilchrist delivered some commanding leaps on the word “beherzt”.

The Cantata Ich armer Mensch, ich Suendenknecht (I, wretched man, a servant to sin) is a short cantata and Bach’s only one for tenor, the four-part chorus joining in for the chorale only. With his vocal mastery and dramatic presence, Gilchrist really carried this work. He milked the repeated word “Mensch” with its wonderful auxillary note for all it was worth, while he caressed the repetition of “erbarme” in a plaintive manner.

Suzuki made the opening of Bach’s Mass in F major glow as he brought out all the complexities clearly. There was grandeur in his conception of the Kyrie and also a rewarding vigour too. The choir made the Gloria ring out, rejoicing in the wonders of the multi-layered counterpoint. The soloists in their turn added poise, and a silky lyricism affirming Suzuki’s masterful direction throughout.

****1