Baroque Fare Featured The Band, But A Singer Delivered The Drama

British baritone Roderick Williams performed with the Bach Collegium Japan, under Masaaki Suzuki, at the 92nd Street Y in New York. (Photos by Joseph Sinnott)

NEW YORK — Masaaki Suzuki’s North American tour with his Bach Collegium Japan alighted in the intimate and very sympathetic acoustics of Kaufmann Concert Hall at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y on Feb. 12. Suzuki, conducting from the harpsichord, led seven instrumentalists and a guest vocalist in a pleasing concert that drew a good crowd.

The Bach Collegium Japan, founded in 1990, is a widely esteemed early-music ensemble. Having heard Juilliard415 play Purcell for Lionel Meunier the night before and Leonardo García Alarcon conduct Monteverdi 10 days before, I found the playing stylistically correct but rather foursquare: The musicians certainly interact with skill and (by and large) precision, but there’s a staid approach to rhythm and phrasing that evokes the earlier decades of historically informed practice. Nonetheless, there was fine, resonant playing from Robert Franenberg’s violone (a proto-bass) and consistently elegant line and firm tone from Emmanuel Balssa on cello and Stephen Goist on viola. And both Liliko Maeda’s playing on a clarion transverse flute and Masamitsu San’nomiya on oboe and oboe d’amore were superb throughout. Maeda took center stage in Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, which opened the concert with solidity though not flair, and San’nomiyar eloquently drove the melody in the rarely performed G Minor Sonata da camera of Silesian composer Johann Gottlieb Janitsch (1708-1762).

Masaaki Suzuki, director and harpsichordist of Bach Collegium Japan, at the New York concert.

The two violinists played with proficiency, evident musicianship, and style but neither individually nor as a pair produced a particularly distinguished tone. Telemann’s first Paris Quartet was the most compelling instrumental highlight, played articulately and with welcome verve by Suzuki, Maeda, Balssa, and violinist Ryo Terakado. From Telemann’s concertos one always expects a slow opening and final movement, but here the piece begins marked “Vivement” (lively) and ends “Vite” (fast).

The fine guest soloist was British baritone Roderick Williams, tackling thematically related cantatas by Telemann and Bach. Through dint of artistry and expressiveness, Williams has joined the league of iconic British singers who have met with international critical and public success despite a voice that one would not call remarkable in either timbre or volume. A long tradition, this company would for me include Peter Pears, John Shirley-Quirk — perhaps the artist Williams most resembles in range, repertory and artistic profile — Robert Tear, and Ian Partridge. All of these singers are justly esteemed, and I for one especially treasure Partridge’s recordings. Some contemporary tenors who fall into a similar category — Ian Bostridge and Mark Padmore — have a cult status and garner positive reviews that utterly elude me.

Liliko Maeda was soloist on clarion transverse flute.

By contrast with their telegraphed “brilliance,” Williams wears his intelligent artistry lightly, and vocally is always pleasant to hear, sometimes more. Heard in Telemann and Bach’s demanding arias, he wielded with considerable dynamic skill and ease in divisions and ornaments a lightish voice of slightly grainy timbre at full volume but well focused in quiet phrases. The recitatives, declaimed with admirably keen but never forced accentuation of key words, showed a pliable upper register that can take on a tenor-like resonance when he wishes it to.

In operatic terms, his gifts suit Mozart’s Papageno and Masetto and Britten roles like Billy Budd and Peter Grimes’ Ned Keene. He also specializes in contemporary works, song literature, and, as here, sacred concert works. In phrasing, agility, and breath control, he handled both Baroque composers’ writing adroitly; occasionally, the very lowest notes in the arias projected with less resonance than the rest, but this was hardly a major fault when set against the clarity and — again — artistic intelligence of his presentation of both the musical and verbal text. The most beautiful vocal passage all afternoon was his hushed traversal of the final verse of “Schlummert ein” from Bach’s Ich habe genug, BWV 82.

Baritone Roderick Williams sang Bach and Telemann arias with the Bach Collegium Japan.

In programming terms, it proved salutary to hear that thrice-familiar (if stunning) cantata dating from 1727 after experiencing Telemann’s very different Der am Ölberg zagende Jesus, treating on Christ’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. The cantata, has two “voices”: a narrator who relates — starting in a tense arioso accompagnato — and eventually (in the third and final aria) expounds on and embraces the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice, and also, in the first two arias, Christ himself. The slow, despairing “Ich bin betrübt bis in den Tod,” with a fair amount of sustained singing, is more akin to Bach, but it’s rather surprising how upbeat Telemann’s setting gets in the da capo aria “Mein Vater!” in which Christ implores that the cup of sorrow pass. Williams differentiated the two personas and sang with due dignity and fluid tone.

As an encore, all of the participants returned to the stage for the exuberant “Lasset dem Höchstein ein Danklied erschallen” from Bach’s Easter cantata Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen, BWV 66, unleashing coloratura flourishes from Williams and streams of joyful sounds from Maeda and San’nomiya.