Just over a year ago, BIS recordings released the long-awaited complete set of Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan recordings of Bach’s sacred cantatas (individual recordings of the collection can also be purchased). This is a monumental achievement, accomplished by precious few. Though it may on the surface seem an impossible task for a group of musicians from Japan (of all places) to perform the music of a baroque German composer, Suzuki and his band have been given numerous awards and accolades, including the 2011 BBC Music Magazine Award, the 2010 German Record Critics’ Award, and the 2012 Leipzig Bach Prize. Suzuki was trained under another Bach master, Ton Koopman. Suzuki’s approach to Bach shows an attention to detail mixed with a warmth that clearly appreciates the artistry. In some respects, his triumph shows that music truly can transcend cultures and peoples. His work is “Exhibit A” that great music is indeed a universal language.
In addition to his professional accomplishments, Masaaki Suzuki is a professing believer and a member of the Reformed Church in Japan. Listen to his own words:
It may seem strange to think that the Japanese perform the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, who was one of the most important figures in the history of German music. “How is it that the Japanese, with such a different cultural heritage, dare to play the music of Bach?’ — this is typical of the sort of question with which I was often confronted when living and performing in Holland a number of years ago. Although recently such reactions have become less common, they have forced me to pause and reconsider what Bach and his music mean to me, and my motivation in choosing to conduct his cantatas.
First and foremost in easing my hesitation and diffidence in approaching Bach’s music was my eventual complete conviction that the God in whose service Bach laboured and the God I worship today are one and the same. In the eyes of the God of Abraham, I believe that centuries that separate the time of Bach from my own day can be of little account. This conviction has brought the great composer very much closer to me. We are fellows in the faith, and equally foreign in relation to the people of Israel, God’s people of Biblical times. Who can be said to approach more closely the spirit of Bach: a European who does not attend church and carries his Christian cultural heritage mostly on the subconscious level, or an Asian who is active in his faith although the influence of Christianity on his national culture is small?
These words introduce the set mentioned above. Suzuki goes on to clarify that this does not mean that only believers can perform Bach’s music well or that Christians always perform Bach well. Yet he believes that knowing the God of Bach can infuse “real life” into the performance of such works. Here’s his conclusion:
Throughout the project I have been sincere in my passion and enthusiasm. Humbly I state that J. S. Bach and I believe in the same God. I am directly linked to the music of Bach through God. I have come to understand how Bach believed in God, as Bach inscribed his inner belief through his cantatas. This is not just for Bach alone. The collection of cantatas is a treasure for all human beings, a sacred book of religion and of spirituality. They have to be sung, and passed onto future generations forever. With the help of his disciples, God left us the Bible. Into the hands of Bach He delivered the cantata. This 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. Soli Deo Gloria!
So well stated. But the message comes out best in Suzuki’s performances of these masterworks of sacred music. Thank you, Mr Suzuki, for your vision, labors, and sacrifice to make this great endeavor a reality. And thank you for your eloquent expression of your commitment to Christ.