Bach: Orchestral Suites - Masaaki Suzuki
BIS BIS-SACD-1431/32 (2 discs)
Classical - Orchestral
Bach: Overtures (Orchestral Suites) Nos. 1-4
Bach Collegium Japan
Masaaki Suzuki (conductor)
Review by John Miller - October 10, 2014
"Ouvertures" is what Bach himself called these four orchestral works, which are among the most popular of his non-vocal musical legacy. They represent his great interest in French dance suites, which were in decline in their home country and were treated by his sons as obsolete. Strictly, of course, it is only the first movement of each dance suite which should take that name, as in French Opera and Ballet. The other genre which occupied him in parallel was the concerto, representing the Italian style and evidently even more challenging for Bach, as he left over twenty concerti compared with just the four "Ouvertures" (although he continued to write dance suites for solo instruments).
Unlike Bach's other purely orchestral pieces, the Brandenburg Concerto collection, Bach's Overtures were not intended to be regarded as a group. They were first numbered 1-4 in the C19th Bach-Gesellschaft Edition. This numbering represents an assumed order of composition on the part of its editors, for which there is still little clear evidence, as there are no remaining autographs which might be dated. Most probably, Overtures 1 and 2 probably date from Bach's time at the court in Cöthen (although there are hints that some of the movements might have been first composed earlier in Bach's former employment at Weimar). The remaining suites, more richly orchestrated, are probably from the years 1729 to 1736, in the composer's Leipzig period. It was here that JSB, in charge of organising evening concerts in Leipzig's famous Café Zimmermann, probably had them played there or, during Summer, in the Coffee House's garden.
Rather then playing or recording them in published order, most recordings these days tend to place the two Overtures which have the trumpets and timpani first and last in the recorded programme, for the sake of impressive dramatic characters in their first movements. These orchestral "Ouvertures" originated in Lully's ceremonial marking of festive entries of the French King and his retinue to court. Masaaki Suzuki chooses Overture III (BWV 1068 in D major) to open this album's programme, and closes with Overture IV (BWV1069).
Modern interpretations of the Overtures rely on historical studies. In the Baroque period, the tempo of works was derived from the style, character, and form of the music. Musicians knew these and applied them intuitively, as they did with the agreed aspects of each type of dance movement. Johann Mattheson's musical compendium (1739) gave vivid and apt descriptions of a dance's character, such as "the saraband is characterised by 'grandezza' and 'seriousness', while the basic mood of the menuet was 'a moderate joviality', and the courante was 'in constant motion, but of such a kind that it progresses charmingly and tenderly'. Looking at the published Ouvertures, the scores are therefore mostly bereft of any hints at all about tempi, dynamics or marks of expression, since these were inherent in the music. The exception is Overture II (BWV 1067), which is surprisingly rich in all these kinds of instruction, possibly inserted by Bach as a teaching exercise.
Every interpreter, therefore, has to make up their mind about how to play each movement. Masaaki Suzuki is now regarded as one of the prime world experts on Bach's performance practise. The splendid performances of the Ouvertures on this two disc SA-CD set are a result of his deep understanding of Baroque musicology, transmitted to his Collegium players. Suzuki has remarked that period instruments themselves constrict their output to what was required in their period, in contrast to the much more versatility of modern instruments.
Another important feature of the Bach Collegium Japan's work here is that they play all Bach's marked repeats, thus restoring the composer's structural balance, after several generations of a tendency to be selective about repeats. Collegium Japan vary the repeated sections with different dynamics, spontaneous ornamentation and expression, sometimes subtle, which adds a great deal to a listener's enjoyment. Rival performances, which occupy only one disc, have mainly done so by selectively pruning repeats, mainly from the longer movements. Their tempi, despite appearances, are not significantly greater than Suzuki's (in fact many of his tempi are somewhat faster than theirs). BIS offer the Suzuki 2-disc set at 2 SA-CDs for the price of 1.
As though liberated from many cantata sessions of strict Lutheran worship, Collegium Japan return to the secular world with ardent playing, full of freedom and joy. Suzuki uses 3 violins in Violins I & II and 2 violas, with a continuo of 2 cellos, double bass and harpsichord (played by himself and only in Overture I)I. Overtures III & IV have added 3 oboes and 3 trumpets with timpani. Overture II in B minor is played most effectively as a chamber piece, with solo strings and traverse flute (soloist Liliko Maeda) and a violone added to the continuo. These are the sort of instrumental dispositions which Bach likely would have marshalled for the evening concerts in Leipzig. Each of the dance types is bestowed a distinctive character, much as defined by Mattheson. All of them, apart from the Sarabandes, have a smiling aspect, and some glow with a gentle humour which is most affecting. Incidentally, the production team list includes a Tuner, showing once more the depth of Suzuki's preparations.
Suzuki as a conductor/director has an ear for colour and a keen sense of harmonic direction. He has an ability not only to make phrases breathe and rhythms live, but to balance Bach's truly polyphonic lines to sound as a satisfying whole, rather than just highlighting leading melodic lines with subordinate accompaniment. The musicians all play with superior virtuosity and impeccable clarity.
This is a reading full of French refinement and elegance, which is simply captivating. Without doubt it is in the top echelon of Overture/Suite sets and for me it overrides two other SA-CD sets: Bach: Orchestral Suites - Pearlman, which is sometimes rhythmically rigid, and Bach: Orchestral Suites - Fasolis, which can be a little over the top with Italianate enthusiasm.
The BIS recording is one of their very finest, caressed by the luminous ambience of the chapel of Kobe Shoin Women's University in Japan. With 5.0 speaker systems, a striking three-dimensional warmth, depth and spatial focus makes one's speakers and listening room effectively vanish. For the chamber array of Ouverture II, the ensemble is brought a little further forward, conveying its intimacy delightfully.
A captivating performance of the Orchestral Suites with all their repeats intact. It can also be found in a boxed set of three SA-CDs, paired with a Brandenburg Concerto performance of similar quality (Bach: Brandenburg Concertos, Orchestral Suites - Masaaki Suzuki). Highly recommended and uplifting in a different way to Collegium Japan's vocal Bach.
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