Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: Masaaki Suzuki, Bach and God

Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: Masaaki Suzuki, Bach and God

Article excerpt

Damian Thompson talks to the great Bach conductor -- and strict Calvinist -- Masaaki Suzuki

When the Japanese conductor Masaaki Suzuki leads his forces in a performance of a Bach cantata, does he worry that the non-Christians in his audience will face the fires of Hell?

That seems a bizarre question to ask any conductor of Bach's music, especially one from Japan, where only one per cent of the population is Christian.

But when I met Suzuki in Copenhagen last Friday I asked it, because the 61-year-old founder of the Bach Collegium Japan (BCJ) is part of that one per cent. He's an Evangelical Protestant, like Johann Sebastian Bach himself. Indeed, he adheres to an even fiercer interpretation of the Bible than the cantor of St Thomas's.

Bach was a Lutheran; Suzuki is a member of the Reformed Church in Japan, which adheres to Calvin's teaching that the fate of the soul at death is 'predestined' by God. The Lord already knows whether people are headed for paradise or damnation, and there is absolutely nothing they can do to influence their eternal fate.

For years I've wanted to ask Maestro Suzuki about his Christian faith, which he proclaimed in the liner notes for the first CD of his Bach cantata cycle with the BCJ and again, 18 years later, in the 55th and last.

As he wrote when he signed off: 'With the help of His disciples, God left us the Bible. Into the hands of Bach He delivered the cantata. That is why it is our mission to keep performing them: we must pass on God's message through these works, and sing them to express the Glory of God.'

Whoa! When did you last hear a world-class conductor of Christian sacred music espouse the doctrines it conveys?

Make no mistake about it: Suzuki is in the top flight of choral conductors (and, in addition, a magnificent harpsichordist and organist -- he's working on what may turn out to be a complete Bach organ cycle).

When I interviewed him he was, arguably, one of three supreme living interpreters of the Bach cantatas, masses, passions and motets. On the following day, sadly, the number was down to two: Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who with Gustav Leonhardt recorded the first cycle of the 193 Bach cantatas on baroque instruments, died on Saturday.

That leaves Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who recorded the works live in a single year, and the vastly more self-effacing Suzuki, who begins the Bach Collegium Japan's first UK residency at the Barbican Centre with a performance of the B minor Mass next month. (Mind you, even Boris Johnson is more self-effacing than Gardiner.)

That said, self-effacement has a ritual dimension in Japanese culture: Suzuki greets me with the customary graceful bow and it's difficult to judge how modest he is. But, my goodness, meeting him is an enchanting experience. He speaks so excitedly about the B minor Mass that you'd think he had just come across it for the first time.

'Eight voices in the Credo !' he says -- meaning eight lines of polyphony, unprecedented in any of Bach's cantatas or keyboard fugues. He sculpts them in the air and sings the words 'in remissionem peccatorum ' just to remind me how glorious it all sounds.

No wonder, then, that the freshness of Bach's inspiration blooms everywhere in Suzuki's cantata cycle for Bis. I spent two decades collecting them, impatient for the next one to appear. …

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