A patient and rewarding approach to Bach

Music-making does not come much purer than in Masaaki Suzuki’s approach to Bach at the NCH

One of the big events in Ireland’s celebration of the Bach bicentenary of 1950 was a performance of the Mass in B minor. It was given in the Metropolitan Hall on Abbey Street – a hall known to generations of Irish children as a Feis Ceoil venue – which was demolished to make way for the Irish Life Centre in the 1980s.

A few months before the event, An Irishman’s Diary in this newspaper in late June 1950 caused some controversy by suggesting the performance would be the first “in living memory”. Letters were soon flying to the editor to prove it was not. The last word went to the University of Dublin Choral Society, which laid claim to having given the first Irish performance on March 28th, 1908.

The 1950 performance was large in scale, involving the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra and two choirs, the Culwick Choral Society and Cór Radio Éireann. But it was unusual in a number of respects. Players were brought over from England to play the high trumpet parts, even though An Irishman’s Diary had explained that “they are not absolutely essential to a perfect performance of the Mass – clarinets will do , instead – but the Association piously aspire to give this performance, as nearly as possible, with the instruments nominated in the original score.”

A photograph published a week before the concert showed the extent to which the Music Association of Ireland was prepared to go. It showed "the young Dublin composer" John Beckett rehearsing on a Weber harpsichord in the National Museum with conductor Otto Matzerath. The use of the harpsichord in a performance of the Mass in Ireland was a first that was not contested.


The review was not exactly favourable. “Of the standard of the performance, it may fairly be said that, if one judges by professional achievements, it was mediocre; if one compares it with amateur performances, it was magnificent.”

Fast-forward to the National Concert Hall last week for Bach of a completely different complexion. Japanese conductor Masaaki Suzuki has made his mark through Bach with the Bach Collegium Japan, which he founded in 1990, and through recordings for the Swedish label BIS, which encompass all the cantatas and major choral works.

Suzuki’s approach to Bach last Tuesday might best be described as patient, trusting, contemplative, and immersive. His is a soft-spoken, unrushed Bach. He wants everything to sound distinct, each vocal, choral or instrumental line perfectly shaped in its own terms, and balanced within the whole so that its precise state of tension with everything around it is never lost.

He doesn’t seem to want his listeners to experience the music coming to them as much as have them drawn mysteriously to experience it from the inside. It’s like the musical equivalent of slightly subdued lighting that enables everything to be seen without anything drawing undue attention to itself.

His singers – 14 in the choir and five soloists (Rachel Nicholls, Joanne Lunn, Robin Blaze, Zachary Wilder and Dominik Wörner, standing with the choir for the choruses, moving forward for most of their solos) – achieved a degree of linear clarity that sounded at times near-impossible. There are approaches to Bach that are much more exciting and stirring, but music- making does not come much purer than this.

Underexposed Irish singers

Both RTÉ's orchestras were in action during the week: the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under John Wilson on Wednesday; and the RTÉ NSO under Swiss conductor Baldur Brönnimann on Friday. And both featured Irish singers of whom we hear too little at home, contralto Patricia Bardon and soprano Orla Boylan.

Bardon is a singer whose voice is dark, full and ripe. But she was rather obscured in Wilson's approach to Elgar's Sea Pictures. Rather than having the voice ride above the orchestral sound, Wilson went for balances that left the singer mostly embedded within it, allowing her to stand clear above it only in selected climaxes. The Sea Pictures are not the best of Elgar, and in this performance the effect of the imbalance was seriously negative, rather like a dish in which the cook has been mean with the main ingredient.

Orla Boylan, another powerful and expressive singer, featured twice on Friday. First up was Ravel's orientally evocative Shéhérazade, which she approached in a manner that was forthright, almost matter-of-fact. It was vocally sure but limited in its communication of suggestive subtleties.

Shéhérazade is no stranger to the NCH – there was a magical performance by Joyce DiDonato with the New York Philharmonic last year – but Sibelius's bleak and vocally demanding Luonnotar, telling the story of the creation of the universe as given in Finland's national epic the Kalevala, is a real rarity. Boylan handled it with rock-like implacability, treating it as a series of weighty but self-explanatory pronouncements as if by a mighty goddess.

Brönniman's accompaniments did little to temper the atmosphere, and his handling of Sibelius's great Fifth Symphony was on the blunt side, too. He was altogether more successful in the French- flavoured dream-world of the opening work, Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu's characteristically sensual A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden.

  • mdervan@irishtimes.com