It’s intriguing when a guest conductor comes in and draws a sound from a familiar orchestra that you haven’t heard before. Organist, harpsichordist and conductor Masaaki Suzuki is one of the world’s leading Bach interpreters – he founded his famed period instrument ensemble Bach Collegium Japan almost 30 years ago – and in last night’s concert he coaxed a timbre from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s string section that could almost have been that of gut strings.
Haydn’s Symphony No 95, was the second performed of his 12 London Symphonies (which were written for his 1791 trips to London after the death of his employer Prince Nikolaus I of Esterházy and the succession of his less musically-inclined son Anton, which left the composer to pursue other career opportunities) and it is the least-often played of the set – the SSO last performed it in 1969.
Suzuki and the SSO, however, made a compelling argument for Haydn’s Symphony 95 taking a seat of honour alongside the likes of Clock, Miracle, Drumroll and Surprise. Conducting without baton, the Japanese maestro took the opening dramatic unison figure at a lively clip – it’s the only one of the London dozen to lack a slow introduction – launching into a detailed yet organic performance that was spell-binding from start to finish.
The SSO strings were on top form, playing with little to no vibrato but a sound that brimmed with life, Suzuki seeming to craft the shapely phrases with his very fingertips, his energy on the podium infectious. He brought a clarity and unity to the symphony across its four movements, from the delicate gestures to the drama of the darker passages and Haydn’s typically quirky inflections, with Umberto Clerici’s cello solos – especially the pizzicato accompaniment in the third movement’s Trio – an absolute pleasure dancing against the larger ensemble. Suzuki was not afraid to unleash the moderate-sized ensemble’s power when needed and launched Attacca from the Minuetto in the finale, with its thrilling fugato and bright wind flourishes.
Beethoven’s Mass in C is another underappreciated work, overshadowed by his grander Missa Solemnis. Commissioned by Prince Nikolaus II of Esterházy for his wife’s name day (the previous six name day Masses had been by Haydn), the Mass failed to impress the Prince, who described it as “unbearably ridiculous and detestable”, though Beethoven stood by it, telling his publisher, “I do not like to say anything about my Mass or myself but I believe I have treated the text as it has seldom been treated.”
While known for his Bach, Suzuki is no stranger to Beethoven either – he recorded the Ninth with Bach Collegium back in 1998 and his Missa Solemnis came out earlier this year – and he infused the Mass with a confident and joyous life.
Despite Beethoven’s rather neurotic tempo marking, Andante con moto assai vivace quasi allegretto ma non troppo (At a walking pace, with motion, very lively, somewhat fast but not too much), Suzuki’s opening was unfussy and flowing, from the unadorned chant-like entry of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs basses to the blossoming of full orchestra and choir.
Australians soprano Sara Macliver and mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley joined Germans tenor Benjamin Bruns and baritone Christian Immler as the soloists in this performance. While some balance problems meant there were times their sound was engulfed by the orchestra (though Macliver’s bell-like tone cut through clearly) there were beautiful moments in the quartet music of the Benedictus. Dowsley’s mezzo brought a warmth to the ensemble, while Immler’s clear-toned baritone nicely balanced Bruns’ penetrating sound, the singers dovetailing against the lighter orchestral accompaniment.
The chorus itself was sonorous and well-blended, and if they too lost some clarity under the overcharged orchestral sound, the opening of the Sanctus was exquisitely shaped. Overall this was a performance full of vitality and elastic energy – there were moments when the music unfurled with heart-breaking intensity and others where finely honed accents hit home with incredible power.
The other star of the evening was guest clarinettist Benjamin Mellefont (the Australian principal clarinet of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic), whose solos sung out across the Mass and particularly Agnus Dei, while the horn work in the Dona nobis pacem was wonderful.
Suzuki, who made his Sydney Symphony Orchestra debut in 2015, brought a fascinating, refined sound to the SSO in this concert, and while balance problems meant the audience lost some of the finer detail in the Beethoven, this was an enthralling musical experience.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs Beethoven’s Mass in C at the Sydney Opera House on Friday 13 and 14