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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Musikalisches Opfer (Musical Offering), BWV 1079 (1747) [52:49]
Aria from the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 [2:23]
XIV Canons on the Goldberg Ground, BWV 1087 [8:29]
Sonata in G major, BWV 1038 [7:39]
Masaaki Suzuki (harpsichord), members of Bach Collegium Japan: Kiyomi Suga (flute), Ryo Terakado (violin I), Yukie Yamaguchi (violin II and viola), Emmanuel Balssa (cello)
rec. 2016, Old Catholic Church, The Hague, The Netherlands.
BIS BIS-2151 SACD [72:12]

Director Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan were on an epic mission to record on BIS J. S. Bach’s complete Church Cantatas comprising fifty-five volumes. That was concluded in 2014. Since then Suzuki has recorded the large-scale choral works, secular cantatas, and seems to be working his way through other remaining works that are appropriate to him such as the organ works (he started his career as an organist). An early music specialist, from the early 1990s Suzuki introduced his home Japanese audiences to authentic baroque instruments or reconstructed copies, with period-informed approach to his performances.

For the major work on this album, Masaaki Suzuki has turned his attention to Bach’s masterpiece Musikalisches Opfer (Musical Offering). Jordi Savall in 2001 wrote that “the Mass in B minor, the Musical Offering and The Art of the Fugue together form a prefect synthesis of Bach’s skill and genius in the art of musical composition”. Savall has expressed the view that following Bach’s death and changes in musical taste arguably right up to the turn of the twenty-first century, the deep meaning of the Musical Offering and The Art of the Fugue were not fully understood and were unfairly viewed as purely theoretical scores.

With regard to the Musical Offering, well documented is the event when in 1747 Old Bach visited the court of Frederick the Great (King Frederick II of Prussia) at Potsdam outside Berlin. Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel worked there as a court musician. The King challenged Johann Sebastian to improvise a three-voice fugue on the theme that he had sent him. Bach successfully did that. Later, confident that he could improve it, he provided a further set of pieces on the “Royal theme” and then set it on manuscript which he published the same year; it is known as Das Musikalisches Opfer. Incidentally the score is inscribed Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta which spells the word Ricercar. In this context it seems as if the terms Ricercar and Fugue are being used reciprocally.

Puzzles both intended and inadvertent are present in the printed score of the Musical Offering. Regarding the order of the works, there is little in the way of instruction for the performers; the set might not have been intended to be played in its entirety. Here Suzuki is predominantly using the order contained in the original printed manuscript as delivered to the King in four sections (except for placing the section with the six numbered cannons first), whilst maintaining the order of the pieces contained within. Some of the Canons are described as Riddle Canons meant for the performers to solve riddles in the parts by providing short melodies and enigmatic inscriptions to solve and interpret the score as a multipart piece. Today the parts are now typically given in a standardised form but here I am not aware of any information to determine Suzuki’s approach. Another puzzle is which instrument(s) are to be used for each of the pieces. Apart from the trio sonata Sonata sopr'il Soggetto Reale featuring the flute, the instrument the king played, there are few clues to the instrumentation of the pieces. There is a school of thought that suggests that solo harpsichord is the intended instrument. The combination of period instruments that Suzuki has chosen includes varied combinations of traverso (flute), two violins, viola, cello and harpsichord. These are beautifuly played by the members of Bach Collegium Japan—performances of eloquence that communicate a special allure, generating rich and generous instrumental colour.

In addition to the main work, Suzuki includes three other pieces in the album. There is one of my favourite melodies, the Aria from the enduringly popular Goldberg Variations, written for solo harpsichord, consisting of an Aria and a set of thirty variations ending with a reprise of the Aria. Bach’s own printed copy of the Goldberg Variations when discovered in 1974 included in an appendix a handwritten set of fourteen Canons constructed from bass notes in the Goldberg Aria. These Canons are described as Riddle Canons as were some of the Canons in the Musical Offering. Using a two-manual Franco-Flemish harpsichord by Willem Kroesbergen after J. Couchet, Suzuki plays unaccompanied the Aria and the first four Canons with suitable restraint. The remaining ten Canons performed by strings and harpsichord are all stylish, performed with impeccable technique.

Attributed to Bach, the final work here is the Trio Sonata in G major that survives in a set of performing parts inscribed Sonata and scored for flute, violin and basso continuo (cello and harpsichord in this case). This was copied by Bach in the 1730s, so the G major score may have been given at Leipzig where Bach presented weekly concerts by the Bachischen Collegium Musicum in the coffee house of Gottfried Zimmermann. This is an attractive score, with Suzuki leading a performance that is excellent in every way.

On this hybrid SACD played on my standard unit, the quality of the vivid recording from the Old Catholic Church in The Hague cannot be faulted. Bach specialist Professor Michael Marissen has written the booklet essay which is at the elevated status one has come to expect from Suzuki’s BIS series. Now for recordings of the Musical Offering it is extremely tough to choose between this new performance and the captivating 1999/2000 account by director Jordi Savall playing viola da gamba with Le Concert des Nations at Collegiale du Chateau de Cardona on Alia Vox.

In the Musical Offering, one of J. S. Bach’s final and most beguiling instrumental works, Masaaki Suzuki on harpsichord leads members of Bach Collegium Japan in this decidedly recommendable performance on BIS.

Michael Cookson
Previous review: Dave Billinge



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