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The Meistersingers from Tokyo

Conductor Masaaki Suzuki and his Japanese Bach Collegium left audiences speechless in a recent tour of Germany. By Wolfram Goertz

Masaaki Suzuki conducting the Japanese Bach Collegium (photos courtesy BCJ)

Basic maths take on spiritual dimensions in the hands of Masaaki Suzuki. "We do the four-voice Credo with 6,4,4,4, the five-voice Confiteor with 3,3,4,4,4, the double-choir Osanna twice with 3,2,2,2." Clearly, Suzuki has put a lot of thought into the arrangement of the voice parts - soprano to bass - and the number 18. "It sounds best with 18 singers," he says. "Then you have the right contrast between the solo voices and the choir, you get the best tonal mix. And it keeps us relaxed and flexible." This is an essential virtue. Without it, any choir singing Bach's Mass in B Minor would fail dismally.

Masaaki Suzuki was born in Kobe, in 1954. He is the conductor of the Bach Collegium Japan, a hand-picked group of musicians who since the group's formation in 1990 have dedicated themselves so unswervingly and competently to Bach's music that the western world has been left speechless. The jury of Germany's phonographic award, the Deutscher Schallplattenpreis, recently honoured Suzuki's team for the 27th sequel of its recordings all of Bach's cantatas. Now the troop is in Franconia to perform Bach's Mass in B Minor. After the concert the audience looked as if they couldn't quite believe what they'd just heard. Some were clearly asking themselves what on earth had happened to the world and its traditions that their beloved Bach could be delivered with such profundity, virtuosity and sincerity by, God forbid, the Japanese.

There's no need to ask Mr. Suzuki where such latent arrogance originates. Having studied harpsichord in Amsterdam under Ton Koopman and organ under Piet Kee he belongs to the ranks of musicians from the Far East who, after years of diligent study in their homeland, head to Europe's conservatories feed their insatiable hunger for learning before returning home, their suitcases crammed with experience. "Every day we sat in Koopman's apartment until four in the morning," Suzuki recalls.

Suzuki's work has retained its intercontinental character. For him, Bach remains an open book which incessantly asks to be questioned and researched. The experts are based in Leipzig and Göttingen and Suzuki knows them all. His record company, BIS, is based in Sweden. To this day Suzuki still has Ton Koopman's wise words ringing in his head. "Don't do it my way. Be your own person!"

'Think for yourself, don't copy' was the first lesson Suzuki had to learn. Now he's an all-round classicist. But he knows his way around the Bible, the Catechism and above all, he understands the spiritual basis of Bach's music. He was not a late convert to Christianity but the offspring of one of the few protestant families in Japan. As a young boy, he played church songs at mass ("on the reed organ," he recalls, "it was good exercise for the legs too").

His German is fluent after a two-year stint teaching harpsichord at the Duisburg conservatory. Having German as a second language is indispensable for his work. It means he can explain the masses, cantatas and passions to everybody he works with. But there are also Germanists and theologians, on the Bach Collegium team. "People who sing with me," Suzuki says with a wry smile, "know of the long evenings we spend together in discussion, learning together." The audience, of course is more interested in what they hear. And here the Meistersingers from Tokyo fulfil the highest expectations. It is after all singing which stems from joyful devotion, virtuoso vocal skill and typical Japanese discipline.

When one of Suzuki's sopranos sang a high A a tiny bit flat at the dress rehearsal in Ansbach, she laughed quietly and hit herself with her score – a wonderful mix of shame, lack of concentration and self irony. In the concert, the piece was so beautiful you wanted to lose yourself in it. One of the two choir counter tenors sang the B Minor Mass from beginning to end by heart. He knew it so well he even turned the pages of the score by heart. Like all of his 17 fellow singers, he looked happy to be allowed to sing Bach. It is an ethos from which certain musicians in Germany would do well to learn from – people who believe they own Bach without wanting to come in contact with its most rigourous demands.

Suzuki's way of putting Bach to music illuminates from within; it seems to step through the meditational force field. But it's more just an breathing exercise, it impresses with its freshness, dynamism, spirit and with it's vocal core - not only in the forte, but also in the weightless, otherworldly piano passages. There is no whispering, never. Of course, making music with historical instruments is not a Japanese invention, it was imported. But in the 15 years of the Bach Collegium's tireless training, the origins have become inconsequential. Suzuki's cultivation of Bach has, in Japan at least, become an original in its own right.

Suzuki's B Minor Mass offers more than just fantastic musical craft. Through him, the last bars of the Confiteor become a chromatic, fearful, mysterious and mystical plainsong which the conductor then breaks with a swinging redemptory elation into the D Major Rejoice. Suzuki's early wish to perform the entire work sprung from an impressive precedent. His first record was Karl Richter's recording of the work, of which he still says: "It showed me who Bach really is." The members of the Bach Collegium are still debating this issue today. Whenever it's not their turn to sing during the concert, the performers have their eyes closed in concentration, all the better to listen in on the others with.

After the B Minor Mass in Ansbach, the Bach Collegium Japan was invited to the Schleswig Holstein Musik Festival, where the group also brought back the Magnificat, the Motettes and Cantatas to Bach's fatherland. Once again the audience was enraptured. Afterwards, Suzuki found time for some solo concerts in Lübeck, Altenbruch and Denmark. Those will be on the organ – so after all that conducting, he can catch up on some legwork.


The article was originally published in German in Die Zeit on August 18, 2005.

Wolfram Goertz is a journalist for Die Zeit.

Translation: Ruth Elkins - let's talk european