Review: Bach Collegium Japan Returns With Chamber Music

At the 92nd Street Y, New York, on Sunday, Bach Collegium Japan — led by its founder and music director, Masaaki Suzuki — brought bold, brisk style to chamber works by its eponymous composer and his contemporaries.

A small subset of this ensemble’s period-instrument forces — five strings, oboe, flute and harpsichord — came together in various configurations for a Bach orchestral suite, one of Telemann’s “Paris” quartets and a chamber sonata by Johann Gottlieb Janitsch. The baritone Roderick Williams joined them for cantatas by Bach and Telemann.

It was an afternoon of fitful pleasures. When the players had a clear, distinctive musical character to embody — a blithe movement from the Telemann quartet or the slumber aria from Bach’s cantata — they tackled it with focused collaboration. Individual members of the group had moments of understated eloquence.

At times, though, the ensemble, with Suzuki at the harpsichord, confronted the audience with an undifferentiated wall of sound. They shaped the music broadly, with little of the interplay between loud and soft, dark and light, that gives Baroque music its unique shimmer. (I wonder whether Suzuki misjudged the acoustics of Kaufmann Concert Hall, which, while not especially warm, still carry.)

Suzuki’s approach brought to mind his conducting of Handel’s “Messiah” with the New York Philharmonic in December, when the players conveyed the music’s general shape without filling in the details.

At the Y, the program’s opening, Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor (BWV 1067), came off a bit noisy when it should have been stately. A zippy tempo for the Rondeau made it difficult for the players to lock into the movement’s buoyancy. Ryo Terakado’s overly bright violin didn’t cohere with Emmanuel Balssa’s sensitively shaded cello.

That suite, though, is really a showcase for the flutist, and Liliko Maeda played trippingly — airy and smooth, fleet and seamless. Alternating between legato and staccato, her tone practically bounced off the harpsichord, and she tumbled gracefully through intricate passagework.

Janitsch’s spacious Sonata da Camera in G minor, altogether sweeter and less densely scored than the Bach, made room for Suzuki’s broad phrasing. The strings inflated their long lines, and Masamitsu San’nomiya’s oboe shone. Stephen Goist’s viola cut through like white light in the Largo.

In the Telemann quartet, Balssa explored minute gradations in hushed dynamics, and Terakado, whose blunt leadership as first violin often dulled the luster of the music on the program, brought a sly smile in his playing.

If the childlike pleas of Telemann’s cantata “Der am Ölberg zagende Jesus” struck a modern ear as a strange way to express Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, then Bach’s “Ich habe genug” was the opposite: magnificent and profound. It tells the biblical story of Simeon, who, having held the Christ child, says he can finally die in peace, for the world has nothing left to offer him.

Williams has a lovely baritone that is almost tenorial in the lucidity of its middle and upper registers. I expected him to lean into that quality during the Bach cantata’s first aria, in which the melody is relatively high, but Williams’s Simeon, consumed by the music’s dusky beauty, was already preparing himself for death. It was only in the second aria, which envisions death as the ultimate slumber, that Williams revealed the downy softness of his voice, singing the final repeat of the verse entirely in piano — weightless and unburdened by earthly matters.

The melancholy of Bach’s cantata hides a deeper contentment. At the Y, the players missed it in the first aria, skimming over its gentle undulations. Then, in the second, as they traced the descending musical figures, keenly attuned to one another and to the music’s character, they found it.

Bach Collegium Japan

Performed on Sunday at the 92nd Street Y, Manhattan.

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