Meeting Masaaki and Masato Suzuki: ‘Look at Bach, he had so much energy. He’s an example for us all’

Stephen Pritchard
Friday, May 10, 2024

Father and son Masaaki and Masato Suzuki reflect on their relationship, the beginnings of Bach Collegium Japan and their prolific recording history

Masaaki and Masato Suzuki (photo: K Miura)
Masaaki and Masato Suzuki (photo: K Miura)

Two small faces appear on a Zoom call from Tokyo. The children have crept into the room to give a little bashful wave while their father, the conductor, composer and conductor Masato Suzuki, talks about the home life of Johann Sebastian Bach. Immediately, parallels appear: Suzuki trying to work with interjections from his offspring, and Bach, under pressure to produce yet more music for Leipzig, no doubt constantly interrupted, too.

Of course, Bach had to contend with the needs of 20 children. No wonder he was known to be on a short fuse. Suzuki seems far from that, a devoted parent and supremely talented musician with fond memories of his own upbringing, playing piano and harpsichord under the watchful eye of his eminent father, Masaaki Suzuki, founder and music director of the prestigious Bach Collegium Japan. And here he is, also on the Zoom call, a smiling, benign presence, ready to discuss a crowning achievement, the recent release of all BCJ’s recordings of the complete vocal works of Bach, all in one 78-disc box set.

Not that he is resting on any laurels. The last recording in the set was made 10 years ago, he says. ‘And there isn’t much time to look back, we have so many other projects in the future.’ That future – and the present – includes Masato, who is principal conductor of BCJ, a post he holds alongside a flourishing career conducting orchestras and ensembles around the world, either on the podium or from the harpsichord.

His love for that instrument began early, growing up as an only child in a household thrumming with music. The Suzukis were not living in Tokyo at the time, but in Kobe, which Masato describes as a big port city, similar to Liverpool in relation to London. The family moved to the Japanese capital when Masaaki took up a post at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. ‘I was nine when Bach Collegium Japan was established in 1990,’ says Masato, ‘so you could say I have grown with it.’

His was a happy childhood, but it did have its tensions, not least because the piano on which Masato practised at home was in Masaaki’s study, right next to his desk, from which fatherly guidance (not necessarily always welcome) would often issue. But Masato learned fast and took naturally to the harpsichord, duetting and improvising with his father and finding a natural affinity with the music of the Baroque. ‘When I was 12 I wrote a paper on Bach’s St Matthew Passion, but no one at my school could understand it!’

His respect and fondness for his father is palpable, and he talks with evident pleasure about playing, for instance, the double harpsichord concerto together. He believes there are real strengths in having two conductors for BCJ, as either can play continuo while the other directs. Can there be disagreements about approach with such an arrangement? ‘Only in tiny details. There can sometimes be a difference in perspective, but that can be a good thing.’

The BCJ management meets three times a week, planning future projects, such as a forthcoming celebration of the Bach cantatas, and widening the repertoire, so that Beethoven will be a focus in 2027. ‘They worry that we work too hard,’ laughs Masato, ‘but I always say: “Look at Bach, he had so much energy. He’s an example for us all” ’.

Reflecting on those early days, Masaaki recalls that the new millennium was a good time for Baroque music in Japan because many musicians of his generation were returning from training in Europe and eager to work in their home country. He had trained with Ton Koopman in the Netherlands (where Masato was born) and when he returned found an audience apparently eager for early music when he sold out a concert of Buxtehude. International critics were sceptical when BCJ’s recordings first appeared, with the Guardian reporting that one writer in Tel Aviv initially believed there should be no connection between Bach and Japan – only to be hugely impressed by what he heard, while a German critic attempted to reassure his cautious readers that ‘this is not Bach in kimonos’.

All such bizarre prejudice has long since disappeared, with Masaaki’s aim of sending ‘a message which can touch the human heart, regardless of nationality or cultural tradition’ winning him more than a dozen major awards, including the Royal Academy of Music’s Bach Prize. The Swedish independent label BIS took a chance with the first BCJ recording and struck gold, staying with the ensemble and the Suzukis ever since, garnering numerous international commendations.

Masaaki – whose Calvanist Christian background first engendered his interest in Bach – found his burgeoning early music department at Tokyo University was fostering a whole new generation of Japanese specialist instrumentalists and singers. He says that when he arrived all the good vocal students wanted to be opera singers, but that has changed, with many more now wanting to train in the Baroque choral tradition. And BCJ now chooses voices according to the repertoire, looking for different timbres and colours to perform later pieces, such as Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Father and son work with several international orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony and the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. Masaaki smiles when he considers how lush Bach’s music can sound when played by a modern symphony orchestra and sometimes wonders why BCJ goes to the effort of using ‘such difficult period instruments’. He’s joking, of course. His dedication to authenticity is exemplified by his latest volume of Bach organ works, where he combines chorales for Easter and Pentecost from Bach’s Little Organ Book with other preludes and fugues, played on the 1737 Christoph Treutmann organ of the Stiftskirche St George at Grauhof, one of the most important surviving instruments from Bach’s time.

Debate continues on the sound that Bach intended when writing for voices, with the generally accepted view that soloists would step out of an ensemble of singers. Just how many singers has always been a subject of contention, but BCJ tries in the larger works to stick to three to a part, citing a letter Bach wrote to the Leipzig city fathers saying this is what he needed. Masato also points out that in in the St Matthew Passion this gives two choirs of 12 – two choirs of 12 disciples. However, other scholars say the letter merely states that Bach needed three basses, three tenors and three altos to cover two Leipzig churches and maintain a reasonable balance in the event of sickness among the singers.

It will be interesting to see the numbers that BCJ employs in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall when it appears at the Proms on 19 August this year, performing Bach’s St John Passion, to mark its 300th anniversary. ‘Nobody knows what the first performance of the Passion sounded like, as the original 1724 score is lost,’ says Masaaki, ‘so like everyone else, we will be performing from the 1749 version’.

I ask them both where they feel closest to Bach. Is it when they are at the keyboard, as in Masaaki’s recent recording of the monumental Art of Fugue, or Masato’s equally recent release of Book One of the Well Tempered Clavier, or is it in front of an orchestra and choir? Masaaki considers this for a while and points out that Bach’s music, whether for keyboard or large ensemble, is structured essentially in the same multi-layered polyphonic manner, so that you can feel equally close to the man in all manner of performances.

Perhaps the biggest difference is entirely human. ‘Organ pipes never complain,’ he chuckles.

Bach: The Complete Works with Bach Collegium Japan is out now on BIS Records

Stephen Pritchard writes on music for the Observer and the classical music website Bachtrack. He trained at Portsmouth Cathedral and sings with the Choir of St Martin-in-the-Fields

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2024 issue of Choir & Organ. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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