Masaaki Suzuki on Interpreting Bach (Ep. 204)

Might Suzuki occupy more space in Tyler’s CD collection than any other musician?

A conductor, harpsichordist, and organist, Masaaki Suzuki stands as a towering figure in Baroque music, renowned for his comprehensive and top-tier recordings of Bach’s works, including all of Bach’s sacred and secular cantatas. Suzuki’s unparalleled dedication extends beyond Bach, with significant contributions to the works of Mozart, Handel, and other 18th-century composers. He is the founder of the Bach Collegium Japan, an artist in residence at Yale, and conducts orchestras and choruses around the world.

Tyler sat down with Suzuki to discuss the innovation and novelty in Bach’s St. John’s Passion, whether Suzuki’s Calvinist background influences his musical interpretation, his initial encounter with Bach through Karl Richter, whether older recordings of Bach have held up, why he trained in the Netherlands, what he looks for in young musicians, how Japanese players appreciate Bach differently, whether Christianity could have ever succeeded in Japan, why Bach’s larger vocal works were neglected for so long, how often Bach heard his masterworks performed, why Suzuki’s  favorite organ is in Groningen, what he thinks of Glenn Gould’s interpretations of Bach, what contemporary music he enjoys, what he’ll do next, and more.

Watch the full conversation

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app to be notified when a new episode releases.

Recorded October 18th, 2023

Read the full transcript

Special thanks to Trace Capital Management for sponsoring this transcript.

TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m here in New York City with Masaaki Suzuki. Masaaki Suzuki is one of the greatest musical creators and producers of our time. He has recorded the entire set of Bach sacred cantatas, which in my collection amounts to, I think, 55 compact discs. He has recorded all of the secular cantatas. These are generally acknowledged to be the most important and best recordings of Bach’s cantata music ever.

He is recording the complete organ music of Bach, so he also is a world-class organist, and he is recording the complete harpsichord music of Bach, works that are commonly acknowledged to be in the top tier. There’s simply no one else I know of with this kind of record of production and quality and dedication and inspiration.

He also has recorded a good deal of Mozart, Handel, and many other 18th-century composers. He founded the Bach Collegium Japan in 1990. He also teaches as a professor at Yale University and does many other things as well. Masaaki Suzuki, welcome.

MASAAKI SUZUKI: Thank you for invitation. It’s a really great pleasure to come here.

On Bach

COWEN: I have many questions for you, but to start with Bach — St. John’s Passion, 1724. If you had to explain to us, in its most fundamental sense, what was new in St. John’s Passion that Bach did? What was the nature of that innovation?


SUZUKI: Probably no one expected at the time to have that dramatic passion because the passion tradition derived from reading the Bible in the liturgy. Firstly, it was only thought of as a tool of Bible reading, but not simply reading; instead of that, a citation with some tones. That was developed to the music, passion music. By the time of Bach, that was already developed as a kind of oratorio passion.

That was actually a very dramatic experience already. Still, in Bach’s time, the one week before Easter, the passion of Johann Walter was still performed. That means, really, only F major chord from the beginning until the end. [laughs] Just to recite all the Bible texts and so on. That was still performed. The very first passion of Bach in the Leipzig time was the St. John’s Passion, which was a really shocking experience for everyone, I thought.

COWEN: In terms of choral work, what is new in that passion?

SUZUKI: Choral work?


SUZUKI: Yes. The structure consists of the choir as the turba, the mass of people, the shouting and so on. At the same time, the choir was also supposed to sing the chorale, so the multifunctions, all the time, chorale.

COWEN: Do you think of St. John’s Passion as a Christian work, or you conduct it as a Lutheran work, or drawing from a particular gospel? How do you think about that theologically?

SUZUKI: My point of view is that the St. John’s Passion — we are doing this work as just simple, general sacred music, sacred work. We are performing this music not in the liturgy anymore, and we are doing it in the concert. There are plenty of ways to accept or receive or appreciate this music. We are doing it simply as musicians, to do our best, to do, sound-wise and text-wise, everything as good as possible. I think the music can work afterwards to the individuals according to their situation or thoughts.

On religion and conducting

COWEN: Your own background is Calvinist. Does that in any way shape how you approach the work?

SUZUKI: [laughs] Yes. That’s a really good question, actually. I was asked many times, “Why are you not Lutheran?”


COWEN: There’s almost a predestination in the work. Jesus seems to know what’s coming more than in other parts of the Bible.

SUZUKI: Exactly, yes. Actually, I’m very grateful to be a Calvinist because Calvin was probably the — I don’t know. I’m no theologian, I’m no historian, but still, according to my knowledge, Calvin was one of the first reformers who acknowledged the value of the activity and culture of this world, not only in that world in heaven. I think it is very often said Calvin was not so sympathetic to the music or culture or whatever, but that is not true.

He limited the congregational singing only to the psalm, but other than church, outside of the church, he has helped much cultural activity, for example, publish the psalms or arrangements, and so on. He was also helpful to inspire the musical activity in this world. I think in this way, we can evaluate the old musical work or whatever cultural activity in this world. The other, under the very big notion of the general grace of God.

COWEN: When Bach is in Köthen in what was East Germany, which was Calvinist at the time, but he’s composing mainly secular works, how do you frame that? Why did he do that?

SUZUKI: Oh, he didn’t have a chance to compose any Lutheran cantata at the time. From one side, he must have been very happy to compose the organ works, the instrumental works, also secular cantatas and so on, but probably he wished to do more work in the Lutheran world, or the Lutheran church and so on. That’s why he moved to Leipzig, I think.

COWEN: Let’s go back and just talk about your career, your history a bit. You’re 12 years old, and all of a sudden, you hear Karl Richter’s recording of Bach’s B-Minor Mass.

SUZUKI: [laughs] Yes.

COWEN: How did you come upon that, and how did you feel at the time?


SUZUKI: That was really stupid. I was very, very excited, not only with that music, but also, I got quite big stereo equipment from my father. Then I was very excited to listen [laughs] to whatever with the headphones. Was also very first experience with headphones.

Anyway, the B-Minor Mass was so fantastic, so wonderful, but I didn’t understand anything from the text that was from the music. That music was much too complicated. The only thing is, I played a lot of trumpet in a brass band. That’s why the trumpet playing by the German trumpeter Adolf Scherbaum was really fascinating in the B-Minor Mass. I actually repeatedly listened only to the Gloria.


Anyway, that B-Minor Mass is really a wonderful encounter with Bach’s music.

On Karl Richter and other early Bach recordings

COWEN: How was your musical ear back then? The Richter recording — I think of it as a little bit of a mix of overblown and stiff, even though it’s pretty good, right? It’s not what people would listen to now. Did you have a sense of that back then? Or were you just blown away?

SUZUKI: No, no. For other interviews, I have listened again to that record recently.

That was completely different, and it is not acceptable at all for my ears. Karl Richter must have been a really wonderful musician. Also, he played the harpsichord by himself and conducted, for example, St. Matthew’s Passion without seeing any scores. That’s a really amazing thing. Anyway, that’s his way of music making, completely modern. Not only modern, but the machine-like notes by notes [mimics sound] and so on. That is really not acceptable anymore, but at that time, that made, probably, a lot of excitement for the audience, and this is very nice, I think.

COWEN: Do you think there are any older recordings of Bach, say, of the B-Minor Mass or the passions that have held up? Before the Dutch movement for original instruments.

SUZUKI: Yes. I listened to, for example, the Mengelberg St. Matthew’s Passion a couple of times. That’s a very famous example in history. That is, of course, completely different, but probably at that time, it was a very beautiful performance, I think. That is quite romantic. The tempo is completely slow.

I have no idea how it was accepted, but actually, it did work out at that time. This sense of value about the performance is changing all the time. I think we belong to a quite different generation, but at that time, it must have been very right and very stimulating to do the Bach music.

COWEN: How was it you decided to study early music in the Netherlands? Was it just you wanted to study music and then you learned of the movement? Or you went there because of the movement?

SUZUKI: No. Actually, I was completely fascinated by the organ itself. That’s why I started to play organ, and I got lessons when I was a teenager before university. Then I wanted to study more organ. My first organ teacher was a Belgian priest, actually, in Osaka. I told him that I wanted to be an organist and so on. “But listen, Masaaki, there are no good organs in Japan at all, so that is not a good idea to study organ here in Japan. Why don’t you study composition?”

So, I did study composition in the university. That was a very good career, very good process to understand the music. Then in between, I just happened to meet the harpsichordist called Motoko Nabeshima, Japanese, the first-generation harpsichordist who studied with Gustav Leonhardt in Amsterdam. She was a really genius person. She spoke more than six languages in Europe, and she had spent quite a long time in Europe. She came back to Japan, and I met her, and I got a lesson from her.

That really changed my life. She introduced me to Ton Koopman, who was a schoolmate of hers. They were together in Gustav Leonhardt’s class. I went to Amsterdam, and I went to the Ton Koopman concert on the day of my arrival. That was a really shocking world, so fresh and so exciting. I decided to come to Amsterdam, and that was a very good decision, I thought.

On becoming a conductor

COWEN: If you started with the organ and harpsichord, how was it, then, you came to conducting?

SUZUKI: Conducting actually has been always outside of my idea because when you perform cantatas or whatever of Bach’s ensemble music, someone must lead, very possibly from the harpsichord, as Bach did, and so on. I did it in that way. Gradually, I made some ensemble with my brother and my brother’s colleague, the string players, and so on, and then we simply started to perform the cantatas, one by one.

For example, I gave them some sign or some signature. My brother criticized all the time, “Oh, that is not clear. That is not.” “All right, which tempo do you want?” Only through this kind of discussion, I became a conductor. I’m not a conductor in a really traditional sense.

COWEN: Were people telling you, “You can only do one thing. It’s organ, harpsichord, or conducting. You have to choose one”? Or everyone just let you do all of them?

SUZUKI: Actually, these three are completely, I think, integrated, easily integrated.

COWEN: But you do all three, right?

SUZUKI: Yes, but the harpsichord and organ are completely different instruments, but still based on the same idea of how to make music. Also conducting, choir conducting especially — that’s exactly the same feeling as you play the fugue on the organ. For example, theme comes, now tenor, now soprano, something like that. That’s exactly the same. Only thing, the choir has text. So that’s much better than with the organ, I think.

COWEN: Given how much music you’ve produced and how consistent the quality is, what is it you think you know about productivity that other people do not?

SUZUKI: I have no idea about other people’s, but the productivity — it’s only that the Bach music is so fascinating, I can’t stop working, simply. I never try to be productive whatsoever.


I only want to pursue how to improve performance, how to realize this and that — the music of Bach, and not only Bach. Only music is there, nothing else.

COWEN: If you had to explain, what is it about the music of Bach that you still do not understand, what would that be?

SUZUKI: Bach’s music has always some kind of puzzles and enigma, so that you can never get an answer to all those unknown aspects of Bach. For example, Kunst der Fuge, the Art of Fugue — we don’t know why he has really written it or in what kind of situation. It was not finished. In the cantatas, for example, there are plenty of really places where it’s difficult to understand why he did something in this way and so on. In most of the cases, we can find some answers from the text, but still, it is not so easy to understand everything. And that was very good.


COWEN: How good a sense of the grasp of Bach’s mind do you feel you have? Or is he just a complete mystery to you?

SUZUKI: Quite a mysterious feel, I think. I’m trying to understand, and I’m trying to come closer to a sense of Bach’s mind, but actually, it is very, very difficult. The more you work, the more distant you can get. That’s true.


COWEN: When you’re hiring for the Bach Collegium Japan, of course, they have to be wonderful musicians, but given the extreme productivity demands that will be placed on them, what is it you look for in the people you hire?

SUZUKI: The most important aspect for musicians is probably how much they can devote to the music, sometimes, how much interest they have in that music. I do, for example, sit at auditions fairly often. Of course, I have to judge, sometimes, technical aspects — how good or technical. Not only the techniques are the most important thing, but probably their interest and how much they can devote themselves to music. That is the most important thing.

I’m very happy to have, now, our members — orchestra and singers, but at the very beginning, they didn’t have any idea what Bach’s cantatas are, especially the choir, the choral music, this kind of ensemble music — how to do that. During our work together, they have developed a lot. That was very nice. They inspired me, again, this kind of vice versa. The inspiration is very, very nice.

COWEN: Do you think Japanese players understand Bach differently?

SUZUKI: I don’t think so. But basically, Japanese people don’t have any Christian background or tradition in the country. Sometimes, I have to explain what the text says and so on, and also, this and that text comes from this and that text in the Bible. This explanation is not possible in Europe, for example, because everything is already taken for granted so that no one can really explain about Jesus’s parables. In Japan, I think it’s very good to have the chance to talk about those things.

Also, the German text is, of course, basically impossible to understand immediately in Japan. That’s why we need translations, or we provide all the time Japanese translations to the audience and also for the orchestra people, all the musicians. But this kind of translation work is part of very important interpretation work because we read the Bible, for example, only through the translations. No one in this world reads the original language in the Old Testament, the New Testament.

Actually, in order to make this kind of translation, we have to think on that, consider what it really means, and so on, all the time. I try to make some translations of Bach’s cantatas. Some 20, 30 cantatas I have translated myself, but it’s very time consuming. That’s why I gave up recently, but we have a very good colleague to make good translations.

COWEN: With your Japanese background, do you think you approach Christianity differently?

SUZUKI: I think so, quite different from any other. Well, actually, each of the countries have a different approach to Christianity or whatever religion, I think. Japan is quite different from Korea. For example, Korea has many more Christians. Now, it is said that 40 percent or 50 percent of the population is Christian, but in Japan it’s always said that only 1 percent or something.

In spite of that, the Christian culture is very well known in Japan. Everyone knows what Christmas is, even Easter. They are quite known nowadays, but there are not so many Christians in Japan. I thought formerly that is a big negative aspect, but I think that it’s not possible, really, to count who is a Christian, who is not a Christian. [laughs] We perform the St. Matthew’s Passion regularly in Holy Week. Every year for 20 years, we are doing it.

Now, we have, regularly, 30 performances in Holy Week in the same venue. Something like 5,000, 6,000 people are coming for that performance. That is an amazing thing in comparison with the number of Christians in Japan. Actually, I think that many people can appreciate that kind of message from the Bible as well — not only Bach’s music but from the Bible and so on. That is my hope.

COWEN: Do you ever think back on what is called the Christian century in Japan, which ends, I think, in 1639, when a lot of Japanese convert to Christianity fairly rapidly, but then Christianity is suppressed? Is there some alternate history where Japan becomes, more or less, a Christian country? Or could that never have happened?

SUZUKI: No, that has never happened. That was completely stopped, I think, religion-wise. But it’s very interesting that there’s evidence that before 1639, many churches were built by the missionaries from Europe. Also in Azuchi, for example, where the Oda Nobunaga was based very close to Kyoto, there were many churches and also quite some organs at the time.

Also, boy missionaries were sent twice at least from Japan to the pope in Rome. At that time, it took a couple of years to reach Europe, and in between, some of them practiced the organ on the ship. Then, when they arrived at Évora in Portugal, one of them could play the organ immediately, and everyone was astonished.


This connection was completely stopped afterwards. That was a pity, and Christianity was actually left over only as the hidden Christians. That is a very interesting history, but probably it is not possible to call it Christianity anymore, but it is a mix up with Buddhism.

The musicologist Mr. Tatsuo Minagawa recently passed away, who has researched about that history, and found out a very interesting thing. For example, there are still hidden Christians in Japan in Kishū area. I heard that they used to have, the funeral ceremony combining the Buddhism and Christianity.

The quite big houses or temple-like buildings, and in the front, they do the funeral ceremony according to the Buddhist way. Then in between, the priests are supposed to walk around to the back of the building, and while walking, they are always murmuring, “This is not true, this is not true, this is not true.” Then they come back to the Buddhism again — something like that. This is a really interesting ceremony, a mixture with the Christianity.

This hidden Christianity of the Christian people has a very, very difficult and miserable history because they were completely repressed, and many people were tortured, but still they have survived in a way. Not really anymore the proper Christian. I don’t know exactly. I can’t tell too much about that because I don’t know exactly, but anyway, there’s hidden Christianity still there. That’s very interesting.

COWEN: You’re from Kobe, right? That was originally a Christian center along with Nagasaki.

SUZUKI: Exactly.

COWEN: Because they were port cities. Is that why?

SUZUKI: Yes, Kobe is one of the most important after the reopening of Japan in 1868. There are probably two, Kobe and Yokohama, and even Sendai — the port places. This was very important to accept any kind of culture from the outside, but Christianity came in. For example, the oldest Protestant church is in Yokohama. That is the end of 19th century. That’s a really interesting history.

COWEN: How do Japanese audiences for classical music, say in Tokyo, differ from New York audiences?

SUZUKI: Hmmm, probably a little different. American audience are more friendly, I think.


More friendly and more easily excited by the performance, and they look more inspired directly from the music, and also musicians. In Japan, Japanese audiences — sometimes they know very well about the repertoire and they are very cooperative, but at the same time, they are a little bit, well, not so excited immediately. Probably on the inside, very excited, but we Japanese people don’t express directly from inside to outside. We were all told in school, for example, that is a rule. That is not the intellectual demeanor — something like that.

COWEN: What do you think of the hypothesis that Japanese audiences — they have a special interest in iconic works such as Beethoven’s Ninth, and there’s an insistence that they hear the best or experience the best, and single out very particular things. Do you think that’s true?

SUZUKI: Yes, Beethoven’s Ninth is very special here, especially in December. There are more than a hundred performances of Beethoven’s Ninth only in December.

COWEN: And the chorus at the end has special meaning for Japanese people, do you think?

SUZUKI: Chorus?

COWEN: The lyrics to the choral ending of the Ninth?

SUZUKI: Of course, that has very special meaning, not only for Japan, but I think they’re, musically, very big events. In Japan, some of the projects gather more than 10,000 people to sing to the bit at the end of Ninth. That is quite a beloved event, but that is not one musical event, I don’t think.

COWEN: Why do you think Bach’s larger vocal works were neglected for as long as they were until Mendelssohn, in what, the 1820s? They’re a bit forgotten. The keyboard music is not forgotten. What happened there?

SUZUKI: Well, I don’t know. There are couple of different aspects. For example, the passion music of Bach — the St. Matthew or St. John — you need definitely the continuo playing, for example, but that idea was already completely extinct by the time of Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn reformed or — how do you call it — made a harmonization for the continuo part. He performed some cantatas as well, but he always provided the parts for the brass section or the wind section to fulfill the harmonization on the continuo.

The improvisative parts of the continuo could not be understood anymore by the time of Mendelssohn. Also, it was much easier for them to understand the passion music just as storytelling, so Mendelsohn performed only mainly the older recitative in St. Matthew’s Passion. For his first performance, he avoided the nearly old arias. Even “Aus Liebe” he didn’t perform the first time.

His intention was to follow the story as directly as possible. In that way, probably, it was thought of just like the opera production. Mendelssohn indeed revived the St. Matthew’s Passion, but actually, that performance is completely different from what we are now doing.

COWEN: How many times do you think Bach heard his own larger-scale masterworks? St. Matthew’s Passion, B-Minor Mass.

SUZUKI: No, there is no evidence that he performed B-Minor Mass.

COWEN: That he never heard it played?

SUZUKI: He never heard it. He never heard it.

COWEN: Only in his mind.

SUZUKI: [laughs] Yes. St. Matthew’s Passion, he performed at least three times, I think. St. John, four or five times, I’m not sure. Anyway, that’s only a couple of times he really heard and performed his own masterworks.

COWEN: Now, your music is largely online. Not all of our listeners are experts in the music of Bach. If you had to recommend two or three cantatas that you’ve conducted — a place for them to start — where would you send them?

SUZUKI: That is very difficult. One of the most difficult questions.


Well, that depends on the situation, what you have in the past in experience.

COWEN: Sure.

SUZUKI: Of course, from my side, one of my favorite cantatas is, for example, Bach — let me see —

COWEN: “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”?


SUZUKI: Yes, 140.

COWEN: That’s a good one for starting.

SUZUKI: Very good one, of course.

COWEN: “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”?

SUZUKI: 80. Well, I don’t recommend that for the beginner because that is too complicated. Well, Cantata no. 8, “Liebster Gott.” [vocalization] That is really wonderful music. You can really use it as BGM — background music — as well. That is really comfortable to listen to.

Or Cantata no. 102, “Herr deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben.” That’s a very interesting structure. The choir has a double fugue, and that is a really interesting structure. Also, the aria was very dramatic. Otherwise, plenty of examples.


On organ playing

COWEN: In the world today, how many top-tier organs are there for playing the music of Bach? Where you can really do it justice. You said there were no good organs in Japan, or you were told this.

SUZUKI: At that time, yes.

COWEN: How many organs of the highest quality are there in the whole world for you to play Bach?

SUZUKI: In the whole world?

COWEN: Yes. How many?

SUZUKI: [laughs] That’s a really difficult question, but it totally depends on what you think is beautiful or what you feel is good. Because I prefer personally the historical organs, the original organs, like in northern Germany or France or wherever. Well, my really favorite organ in the world is the Groningen, that is in Martinikerk, that was built by Johann Caspar Schnitger.

COWEN: Where is that exactly?

SUZUKI: The Groningen is in the north part of —

COWEN: Oh, Groningen, yes.

SUZUKI: That is really wonderfully restored. That quite depends on how it is restored as well, because the organ has a very long history. For example, in the 19th century, all over, the historic organs were renovated according to the musical taste of that time. Nearly all the organs were Romanticized completely, the Romantic way they changed. In the 20th century, most of the organs were re-renovated to bring them back to the original situation of the 18th century or 17th century.

How to restore is a really key point, actually. For example, this Martinikerk Groningen organ that originated as a Schnitger organ, from the very original style is very good, but it was beautifully restored by Jürgen Ahrend, one of the most important organ builders in Germany.

COWEN: How was it that organs improved in the time of Baroque music and Bach so that he could do what he did? Because it wouldn’t have been possible 100 years earlier, right?

SUZUKI: Yes, organ building has been changing all the time, according to the time. Bach’s time, the second half of the 18th century — the organs around Bach’s area, Saxony and Thuringia, had quite a different character from northern Germany or Italy or France, and so on. They had many stringy stops, registers. Stringy sound contains a lot of high overtones. That is very close to the string instruments, and that is very interesting. That character is very important for Bach’s organ music, I think, basically.

As I said, there is no organ extant from that time to play all Bach’s organ music on one instrument. Actually, Bach’s idea of composition is always surpassing the organ situation. [laughs]

COWEN: Here’s a question from a reader: “How does he explain the, to me, surprisingly large number of Japanese organ students at top conservatories in Europe?”

SUZUKI: Now, there’s not so many Japanese —

COWEN: Not so many, you think?

SUZUKI: Yes. Now many more Korean organists.

COWEN: Korean?

SUZUKI: Yes. Well, basically, I think, nowadays in Europe, much less numbers of Japanese students in general. But for a famous conservatory, like Paris or Rome or Vienna and so on — there are still quite some, I think, but much less than before. That is probably because all the Japanese musicians can get a job now in Japan, so they don’t have to really go to Europe anymore in terms of getting a job. I think it’s still very important to live in Europe once if you would like to be a musician of European music. It is very important, I think.

COWEN: Once you arrived in the Netherlands — of course, you’ve been to Germany many times earlier on — how did that change how you understood the music of Bach?

SUZUKI: Well, before I came to the Netherlands, actually, I didn’t have any knowledge. I didn’t have any understanding [laughs]. Only the feeling. I loved organ. I loved harp school. But the only thing is, when I started learning with Ton Koopman, what I had done in Japan was not wrong. I thought that I was very lucky.

Actually, I was completely ignorant before I came to the Netherlands about Baroque music or about Bach. Everything was so new to me. All the knowledge — Ton Koopman had so many books and so much knowledge. He really talked of many things like a machine gun.


After that, I learned and I read some books and so on a little bit more objectively. Then I came to the conclusion that I’m good, I can stay. Something like that.

COWEN: If you go to the Bach church in Leipzig or go to Arnstadt, mentally, emotionally, does something fall into place? Or do you just look at it and say, “Oh, that’s nice”?

SUZUKI: For example, in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, I was very happy to be there for the first time ever. That was still in the DDR Zeit, GDR times. In front of the church, there was a huge statue of Bach, and that was, “Oh, Bach was so big a person.” [laughs]

Actually, the St. Thomas Church itself — I heard that the inside is quite different from the time of Bach. I was very happy to be there, but I can’t make any connection to heaven through that church. Anyway, Bach can be anywhere. I thought that Bach can be anywhere in the world. That is very important places, but now, it’s quite different in the building structure-wise, and everything is different, so you can never feel the original atmosphere there.

COWEN: What do you think of Glenn Gould’s highly unusual interpretations of Bach?

SUZUKI: I love the Glenn Gould performance very much. It is not so unusual if you try to make articulations, and also to make some effects like the harpsichord and organ and so on. I thought this is a quite natural conclusion that he did in that way. There are one or two — the recording of organ playing, his organ playing. That was a little strange, I thought, but a piano — for example, Goldberg Variations — that’s a really fabulous recording, I think.

COWEN: What do you think of the view that some of them are wonderful, like the partitas, the English Suite in A Minor, but say, the Well-Tempered Clavier — it just seems like swooning, and the tempos are too arbitrary. It’s not charming to me.

SUZUKI: Oh, really?

COWEN: Some of them seem to not work at all.

SUZUKI: Yes, could be. I don’t know so many different recordings, but at least for the Goldberg Variations, that was very nice, the first one especially. Sometimes the tempo is very quick, and I can’t do that in that way, but that is a very fascinating performance, I think.

COWEN: The Brandenburg Concerti — what is it exactly that makes them such a major advance over the music that came before? Because they seem to come out of nowhere, and they’re so fully blown. The solos are incredible, right? The ensemble work.

SUZUKI: Yes. I think that was Bach’s intention, to compile the six concertos as one collection, but probably by then, he had composed many concertos. I think that is very simple. The New Yorker Bach specialist, Michael Marissen, has written that Brandenburg Concerto was a symbol. His intention was to represent the social hierarchy. Number one is with two horns. That is the usual symbol for the court, the dignity of the court. The second one is the trumpet solo, oboe, recorder, and violin. Those four instruments are supposed to be performed by any stadtpfeifer. They have to master all these instruments, and so on and so on.

Number three is very interesting. This number was made by Bach himself, and that is three violins, three violas, three vicelli. That’s everything dominated by three. But he didn’t compose a second movement. That is, the actual movements were supposed to also be three, but the second one is missing, and only one bar in the middle of the page. He clearly intended to improvise that second movement himself. That was the intention for the Berlin — we wanted to dedicate it to the Berlin Graf. Then if you hire me, I can improvise for this movement — something like that. [laughs]

On contemporary music

COWEN: What is it in contemporary classical music that you enjoy?

SUZUKI: Contemporary music. Yes, I enjoy sometimes, but probably, there are plenty of other specialists for contemporary music, I think.

COWEN: What do you listen to?

SUZUKI: I don’t know what is contemporary, but I listen to Stravinsky, for example. That’s one of my favorite composers. I even made one CD of the Pulcinella, and so on. Even more recent ones, like Takemitsu, and that is very beautiful. But sometimes I can’t understand their intention. Sometimes very difficult.

I used to be a student of composition. At that time, my teacher was Akio Yashiro, who had studied in Paris. He passed away when he was 46 years old while I was still a student. He composed a wonderful symphony and piano concerti and so on.

Very recently, I performed his symphony for the first time in my life with the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra. That was a great pleasure. The rhythm is so interesting. The structure is quite classical. His way of composing was, in a way, conservative according to the very classical structure, and also rhythm pattern and so on. But the sound itself is completely new, atonal music. It was a little difficult for me to enjoy that kind of sound, but it was a wonderful experience.

COWEN: What is it you like in popular music?

SUZUKI: Popular music. I don’t know the definition of popular music, [laughs] but I like some of the singers, like Mariah Carey, for example, and also Whitney Houston, and so on. That’s really wonderful music. They are really good singers. Also, the texts are to cheer up people, and that was a very positive aspect all the time. That was very, very nice.

One form of the traditional Japanese popular music is called enka. That is songs of remorse and also sometimes regrets and so on. Very often, Japanese popular songs have that kind of text, which describe the negative aspects of [laughs] our experience. I find it’s a little difficult. Not difficult, a little piteous.

COWEN: What’s your favorite Beatles song?

SUZUKI: Beatles?

COWEN: Yes, Beatles.

SUZUKI: Beatles, [laughter] I don’t know much about that. The Beatles — really, I don’t know. When I was in a brass band, we played some Beatles arrangement for brass band. That was “Yellow Submarine.” [laughs] One of the Beatles songs had the very top, the piccolo trumpet as a feature.

COWEN: “Penny Lane,” right?

SUZUKI: “Penny Lane,” yes, exactly.

COWEN: Yes, that’s very good.

SUZUKI: That is my favorite.

COWEN: When you’re conducting and recording, what is it you’re thinking about? Do you have to concentrate completely on the music? Or does your mind wander at all? How is that for you?

SUZUKI: No, not at all. Basically, I can’t think of anything other than music.

COWEN: Than what has happened.

SUZUKI: Yes, that happens, or in that bar. I can’t even think of the next bar. I always concentrate on what’s coming next, something like that. Also, the purpose or aim of that part of the music, what kind of atmosphere must be realized, and so on. That is the most important thing.

COWEN: You’re never distracted by physical troubles like “I’m tired of standing” or anything?

SUZUKI: No. Actually, no distraction, only for rehearsals. When I start rehearsal, sometimes I feel, “Aargh, today, I’m very tired.” But during the rehearsal, I always freshen up, so that’s no problem anymore because of the music. I can get energy from that.

COWEN: How much do you need a score to conduct?

SUZUKI: How much?

COWEN: Some people conduct without a score. It’s much harder. Do you need a score, or you use a score, or you don’t use a score?

SUZUKI: Oh, of course. Definitely, I always use the score. I never, never do anything by heart because that is not necessary.

COWEN: It just takes up more brain power for no purpose or —

SUZUKI: No. Actually, for pianist or violist or singers, for example, there’s a day maybe they must memorize all the text or whatever. Most of the pianists are too busy to see the score, so they, of course, must memorize everything. But for conductors, no reason to memorize, actually, just like Ansermet said.

Also, choir people in sacred music — not in the opera scene or whatever — but they must keep the scores always in hand because by memorization, your memory, how do you call it? Your understanding of the music is changing all the time because, in order to realize this and that notes and the text and so on without mistakes, then you must take different energy to keep up that. But what we should do is only make music, to make a sound. I think other than the operas and generally performances, I think it is better to have scores all the time.

COWEN: Do you just go back and listen to your old recordings for fun? Or it’s finished, you’re done, and you move on to the next thing?

SUZUKI: Basically, I want always to move on to the next and never, never look back.


Sometimes I am told to do that because I have to choose a different thing, to make another program, or to make a recommendation of the cantatas and so on, but basically, I don’t look back at all.

COWEN: If you have, say, at least two recordings of the St. Matthew’s Passion — I think they’re about 10 years apart. When you did the second, was your feeling, “I just want to do something different,” or you had heard the first, and you thought, “No, that’s wrong. I need to correct it”?

SUZUKI: No, no.

COWEN: They’re just different visions.

SUZUKI: Each recording — none of them is really perfect. I always want to do it once again, like the live performance. If I have time, I’d like to do all the cantatas once again. After all, then I probably will want to do once again. That’s a never-ending story.

But for St. Matthew’s Passion, the first recording, I have nothing to regret. In between, we have improved, not only technically, but also the understanding about Bach. And all the members — choir members, orchestra members — have all developed much. That’s why, as a milestone, I think it’s very good to do once again. If I could live another 30 years, then probably I will do, once again, the St. Matthew’s Passion.

COWEN: You have one of the best-known recordings of Handel’s Messiah, but as you know, there’s literally hundreds of recordings of the Messiah. Do you go and listen to some of them before you record to make sure yours is different? Or you just figure it will come out different? Do you listen to old ones, like Beecham, for inspiration? How do you approach the musical past?

SUZUKI: Sometimes I need to listen to the other recordings or the older ones or other kinds of reference. Basically, I’m trying not to listen too much to other recordings. [laughs] That was too much influence. I think to make a recording is very interesting because that is quite an important experience for all of us, all of our colleagues. During the recording session, many things happen, and they are not always very easy. During the recording sessions, we all take that music into any cells in our body. That is really interesting.

For example, the Messiah recording is a long time ago, but during the recording session, a couple of our colleagues’ mother or father or spouse said they passed away or something. Also, my wife’s mother passed away just when we finished the recording. As if she’d waited for that moment. That kind of memory is always coming back. It is really a wonderful experience to keep going with the session recording. That is very nice.

COWEN: As you must know, Apple has recently acquired BIS Records, and you’ve done so much of your work with them. Will that change how you approach recording projects?

SUZUKI: Actually, we don’t know yet what’s happening now. I’m so happy to be working with BIS all the time, 30 years now. I really hope that we can go on in more or less a similar way. We have a really wonderful connection — the relationship with this company.

COWEN: More people might hear your music because Apple will put it higher in the algorithm, right?

SUZUKI: What do you mean?

COWEN: Let’s say you’re listening to music through Apple services —

SUZUKI: Oh, I see.

COWEN: — and you just type in “Bach.” You don’t know what you want. I would think it’s more likely that Apple puts you at the front because they own the rights to that music, and more people will hear you. I’m just guessing.

SUZUKI: Yes, maybe. Probably, hopefully. [laughs]

COWEN: It could be good for you.

SUZUKI: Yes. That is very nice.

COWEN: You’re now at 67 years old, and you first heard Bach when you were 12 years old. That’s 55 years of listening to Bach, playing it, conducting it, recording it. Over so many years, how do you think it’s affected you emotionally or spiritually or philosophically? How are you different internally?

SUZUKI: Wow, I’m getting older now. [laughs] I know Bach is always there. I’ve never thought in that way. Bach is my life, actually, so familiar. I am living inside of Bach’s music, so I can never judge it from the outside.


Actually, it is not thinkable to live without Bach’s music or without music. That is my life only.

COWEN: Last two questions. First, what is your favorite pizza in New Haven?

SUZUKI: Pizza, [laughs] well, to be honest, I didn’t get any pizza in New Haven.

COWEN: [laughs] It tastes very good there.

SUZUKI: Yes, I know, that’s very famous, but I don’t like pizza so much.

COWEN: Oh, okay.


COWEN: Last question, what will you do next?



SUZUKI: After this project with Yale and Juilliard — now, we are having Handel’s oratorio called L’Allegro Penseroso ed il Moderato. That’s very interesting music. After that, next project is a couple of organ concerts in Japan because in Kobe, in the Shoin chapel, where we have made all the CD recordings — and that organ that’s built by the French organ builder called Marc Garnier, that was exactly the 40-year Jubilee this year. That’s why I will give a couple of concerts there. That was actually the starting point of my whole career, so that is a really important event.

After that, I’m coming back to Europe to make another volume 6 or 7 of the organ series in Groningen. Then I will make a tour with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with the Christmas Oratorio, all six parts. That’s really exciting. Next year in January, we are going to perform Brahms’s Deutsches Requiem with period instruments in Japan and make a recording. That is a real excitement.

COWEN: I look forward to that. Masaaki Suzuki, thank you very much.

SUZUKI: Thank you. Thank you very much.