James Waters, Director of Classical Music at Horsecross, explained that he had been waiting for two years to welcome the Bach Collegium of Japan to Perth Concert Hall, with its especially good acoustic for baroque music. It is certainly a major coup for Perth to secure these internationally famous players for a whole weekend residency in the town, particularly as it is their only appearance in the UK this year.

Masaaki Suzuki, © Marco Borggreve
Masaaki Suzuki,
© Marco Borggreve

Masaaki Suzuki founded this ensemble In 1990, with the aim of introducing Japanese audiences to early music on period instruments. Since then, this group has built an international reputation for excellence and has an enthusiastic band of followers prepared to travel across countries to hear them play at music festivals worldwide. At this opening concert, it was clear that the audience was composed of baroque enthusiasts not only from Scotland but from much further afield as well.

A stunning rendition of an Overture in A minor by Telemann opened the evening, featuring a breathtaking performance from recorder virtuoso Andreas Böhlen. Masaaki Suzuki led the ensemble (two pairs of violins, one viola, with cello, bassoon, bass, and organ continuo) from a double-console harpsichord, keeping things absolutely together, yet really letting the music breathe to such an extent that it was like listening to a wonderful story being told. The playing allowed each part to be brought out, so that the inner instruments were as clear as the outer ones. Böhlen played beautifully and packed in spectacular ornamentation on his period recorder in what will surely be one of the stand-out performances of the year.

Handel’s Organ Concerto in F major, Op. 4 no. 4 was composed for performance in intervals within in his oratorios, and it premiered at a performance of Athalia in Covent Garden. Masamitsu San'nomiya on oboe joined the group and Masaaki Suzuki’s son Masato played the chamber organ brilliantly with bright registration in the familiar opening tutti, slowing things down in the stately walking-pace Andante and building to a thrilling fugue theme in the final Allegro. The second delight of the evening, and for those of us hearing this group for the first time, it was becoming apparent that this was a collection of especially talented musicians. The continuo strings, Frank Coppiters on violone (a sort of fretted double bass) and Julie Borsodi on a spikeless baroque cello, are both sought-after players.

A quartet of strings and continuo accompanied dazzling violinists Ryo Terakado and Yukie Yamaguchi in Bach’s Double Concerto for 2 Violins, with well-judged balance between the two soloists and the one-to-a-part band. This performance shone new light on this familiar piece. The Largo was taken at a fast pace but this interpretation produced interesting textures and at times it was as if there were six soloists playing. The final Allegro raced to a conclusion and was particularly sparkling with up-bow accents from the distinctive baroque bows used by all the strings.

Soprano Joanne Lunn singing her heart out in Bach’s cantata “Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke” topped an already extremely special evening. Masamitsu San'nomiya’s expressive obbligato oboe playing matched Lunn’s sweet tones in the opening aria, and the band positively danced through “Ich esse mit Freuden mein wenignes Brot” (“I eat my meagre bread with joy”). Lunn’s recitatives, the first with continuo and the second with full string orchestra, were simply wonderful, although she was in danger of being drowned out by the enthusiastic players at times. A final strong chorale closed the cantata to extended applause. We were rewarded with an encore, giving as a tantalising taste of the concert the following day: the final aria “Wie freudig ist mein Herz” from the Cantata to be performed then. How joyful is my heart! Lunn positvely exuded joyfulness in her voice and facial expressions in this exquisite taster of things to come.

This was a particularly special evening, and a wonderful start to what will undoubtedly be a memorable weekend of world-class baroque music in Perth.