Rarefaction and Mystery: Bach Collegium Japan at Town Hall

I’ve waited for about fifteen years to see the Bach Collegium Japan in concert, so I was excited to see what they would bring when they finally visited Seattle.

What they brought was a program of works by Bach, Vivaldi, and Händel, and a stripped down orchestra even by Baroque standards.

The opener was the old chestnut Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F. As the Collegium gradually warmed to the music, I noticed that I had never heard it quite that way before. Due to the small size of the orchestra–nine players, including the conductor at the harpsichord–the lines were very clear but the playing sometimes a little scary. With one instrument per part, there is no room for error. I am, admittedly, not used to hearing it played this way. Which is actually kind of exciting, especially for such a well-worn piece. It’s nice to hear Bach and still feel an occasional sense of surprise. As the program notes put it, the piece is always in danger of becoming Concerto for Trumpet and Everyone Else, and in a minimal orchestra even more so. In this case, however, hearing the trumpet dominate the Brandenburg No. 2 so completely in sections of the first movement actually made the other instrument combinations much more lucid, especially in the second and third movements.

Altogether the concerto danced nicely, with a very beautiful Andante (no trumpet) as its centerpiece. It was a pleasure, too, to see the entire orchestra, save the harpsichordist and cellist, standing. Some European orchestras make a point of this, viewing the playing of the music as a kind of choreography. Myself I appreciate when the musicians are feeling it, beause the audience is generally feeling it, too. In seeing how the music would take over the performers’ bodies and movements, one could sense a kind of rhapsody all the way throughout.

That rhapsody was especially noticeable in the exquisite performance of the Vivaldi Concerto for Recorder, Strings and Continuo. The orchestra played the piece at an incredible tempo, almost breakneck even in the opening Allegro. Yet soloist Andreas Böhlen played freely and blissfully, obviously in love with the music. The back and forth between the soloist and the strings in the Allegro molto finale especially brought all of the musicians to smile with its wit and sense of pure joy. That joy was infectious. At the close of the concerto not only did the audience roar with applause, I could see and hear that a couple next to me were restraining their desire to stand up. I wish they hadn’t. It was an impeccable performance, truly delightful and probably should have been the closer of the program.

That was never going to happen, however, because the lovely soprano Joanne Lunn was in the house, and singers always get the closing piece of a show, by tradition.

For the close of the first half, Ms. Lunn sang the Händel Gloria in B♭. This piece has made a sort of comeback in the last fifteen years, now that it’s been approved by the musicology establishment as a genuine Händel piece. The Gloria is a rare piece in that it’s arranged for solo voice, which almost never happens with any part of the Mass. Vivaldi came close with his Gloria in which there are movements for solo voice, but Händel took it to the logical extreme, turning it into a showcase for his favorite soprano of the time.

After a brisk and powerful opening Gloria in excelsis deo Ms. Lunn here takes a somewhat restrained approach to the middle four movements–even to the Laudamus. The Domine deus, Rex caelestis is stately and benefitted greatly from the restraint. The strings of the Collegium here also held back a bit to let Ms. Lunn’s voice float delicately over the top. I feel a little more mixed about the Laudamus and the Qui tollis peccata movements, and this is mostly because of the size of the hall. Ms. Lunn’s voice is a bit on the delicate side in her upper range, and in the cavernous space of Town Hall, she occasionally seemed to be looking for more support. But the strings could hardly play any differently and still maintain the right balance. In a smaller venue this would not have been a problem, but sitting off to the left as I was I struggled a bit to hear the parts clearly.

The same quality of Town Hall’s massive space worked against the Bach Flute Sonata in e in the second half as well. Kiyomi Suga’s playing struck me as elegant and first rate. But Bach, brute that he is toward his musicians, wrote a piece where the flutist regularly dwells in her lower register where the flute is its softest. Ms. Suga is more than up to the technical task of hitting the notes, but the hall worked against her purpose of projecting the low sounds. Again, I sat sharply off center to the left, so the problem was probably aggravated by my position. House center it may well have sounded fine.

At any rate, the musicianship was first class, especially in the gorgeous Andante, and I longed to hear more of Ms. Suga’s playing–perhaps a Telemann concerto? But no one plays Telemann anymore, I’ve been told. Still, given the talent on the stage, the flute, oboe, and viola concerto would have been perfect for the evening.

I continued this thought as Masamitsu San’nomiya came on stage for the Vivaldi oboe concerto, which was outstanding. The C Major concerto used to be my warmup piece back in my college days, but Mr. San’nomiya’s approach tickled me with its freshness and wit. There’s a lot of completely humorless Vivaldi out there, but this was not one of them. And a good thing, too. The orchestra again played quite briskly but with a smooth, delightful jaunt. For me a Vivaldi concerto works best when musicians connect his concerto form to Corelli and particularly the dance structure of Corelli’s concerti grossi that Vivaldi adored so much. Vivaldi that does not dance is a sure ticket to cure my insomnia.

The Collegium Japan players not only let the concerto dance, they understood that the piece involves a lot of trading dance partners, and the rarefied numbers of the orchestra actually encouraged this arrangement and re-arrangement. The play of the oboe and the low cello I found particularly excellent.

The evening closed with a fine version of Bach’s cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen with an especially good Alleluja, and the audience even got an encore: “Wie freudig ist mein Herz” from Bach’s cantata Mein Herz schwimmt in Blut. Both of those pieces were much better display pieces for the strengths of Joanne Lunn’s voice. More technically demanding, but also more apt to open up and shout for joy as the title says. That is when I like Ms. Lunn best: when her voice conveys rapture and profound joy.

All in all, a successful concert, a program of works about which musicologists know very little, and a reasonable payoff for waiting fifteen years to see one of the premier Bach orchestras in the world.

Categories Music

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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