The Juilliard School's historical performance programme has only been in place since 2009, but on the basis of this concert the graduate ensemble Juilliard415 (named after the standard Baroque pitch of 415 Hz) is already of extremely high quality indeed, technically proficient and highly in-tune with Baroque style. They often work with top international Baroque musicians, including Japanese conductor and Bach expert Masaaki Suzuki, their leader for their New Zealand tour. The Auckland show put joint focus on those two giants of the Baroque period, Bach and Handel, in dynamic performances that belied the performers' relative youth.

Masaaki Suzuki © Marco Borggreve
Masaaki Suzuki
© Marco Borggreve

The first two works both featured musical "borrowings" from earlier parts of their composers' careers. Composed for the first Sunday after Easter 1725, many experts believe the sinfonia from Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats, BWV 42 was originally part of an earlier lost work (according to Sir John Eliot Gardiner, a birthday serenata for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen). Suzuki and the ensemble brought great vigour to this spirited piece, as throughout with tempi that almost invariably felt perfect. The string and woodwind (two oboes and one bassoon) sections engaged in jovial competition in their duelling parts, all involved showing striking clarity in the counterpoint. Particularly noticeable was the appealingly buzzy texture of the period bassoon in its impressively virtuosic performance.

One of Handel’s loveliest solo vocal works, Silete venti is a multi-movement motet with numerous musical borrowings from earlier Handel works, including the Chandos Anthem Let God arise. This too featured superlative instrumental work including beautifully pensive oboe solos in the opening sinfonia with its typical French-overture dotted rhythms. The sinfonia is suddenly interrupted by the soprano soloist (Rebecca Farley), calling for the winds to be silent in authoritative tones. Farley has an obvious but perhaps as-yet unfinished talent, her voice moving quickly and fluently through the coloratura even in the incredibly virtuosic final “Alleluja” movement. However there were some issues of unsettled pitch and the performance as a whole could have used more light and shade, more variation of expression between the laidback pastoral first aria (“Dulcis amor”) and more animated second one (“Date serta”). In fact, on more than one occasion the flexible and subtly expressive playing of Juilliard 415 stole the spotlight from the singer. On the other hand, the aforementioned “Alleluja” was suitably joyous and was capped by a huge and shining high note.

Suzuki’s recording of the Bach Orchestral Suites with his Bach Collegium Japan ensemble has long been a strong favourite of mine and it was a pleasure to become acquainted with the Second live following the break. The most introverted of the four suites, it is scored for strings, continuo and solo flute only. Indeed, the solo flute part is so prominent and fiendishly difficult that flautist Jonathan Slade was asked to perform centre-stage. I wondered a little here about the suitability of the Great Hall of the Auckland Town Hall for this performance in that there were some audibility issues with the solo flute even from the front stalls. Again, the first movement is in a French overture-style and Juilliard 415 impressed with the crisp and snappy dotted rhythms. The following dance sections may have been intended for listening not dancing, but Suzuki retained the feeling of dance-like movement throughout, forthright in the Polonaise and the in the Sarabande maintaining an intimate simplicity that belied the music's complexity. Slade made the most of the opportunity to display his virtuoso prowess, weaving elaborate flute variations over the bass restatement of the Polonaise theme and coping manfully with the frenetic pace of the famous Badinerie, showing a keen sense of style and panache in his tasteful decorations.

Handel followed Bach once again in the form of the Concerto grosso, Op.6, no. 6, a rare example in that set of concertos in that it contains only original music. Suzuki set the scene grandly with a strong sense of tragedy in the opening Larghetto and he and the ensemble audibly relished the weird and angularly chromatic fugue second movement fugue. Again, Juilliard 415 set impeccable standards of playing in this work – both solo violinists were superb, Alana Youssefian in particular standing out in the virtuosic fourth movement Allegro. Her smooth handling of the tricky passagework brought something of a Vivaldi Four Seasons vibe and her strong sense of phrasing in slower music was equally impressive. The sheer warmth of feeling of the melancholy Musette was another highlight. My only real regret was that the second programme of their New Zealand tour, feature Ich habe genug and the Concerto for two violins, couldn’t also be shared in Auckland to give this city's audience another opportunity to share in their joyous music-making.