> BACH St John plus St Matthew: Suzuki [KM]: Classical CD Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St. John Passion BWV 245

Ingrid Schmithusen, soprano
Yoshikazu Mera, counter-tenor
Gerd Türk, tenor (Evangelist)
Chiyuki Urano, bass (Jesus)
Peter Kooij, bass (Petrus, Pilatus)
St. Matthew Passion BWV 244

Nancy Argenta, soprano
Robin Blaze, countertenor
Gerd Türk, tenor (Evangelist)
Makoto Sakurada, tenor
Peter Kooij, bass (Jesus)
Chiyuki Urano, bass
Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki
Rec: April 1998 (St. John), March 1999 (St. Matthew), Kobe Shoin Womenís University, Japan.
BIS CD-1342/1344 [274.11]

What an excellent idea BIS has had to re-release Masaaki Suzukiís recordings of Bachís two passions at a low price. This 5-CD set is sold for the price of three discs, which will delight those who have not yet purchased these two recordings individually. This St. John Passion has been lauded since its release as being one of the finest recordings of the work. The St. Matthew Passion, recorded with similar forces, has not received the same acclaim, but certainly merits more than it has received. Suzuki shows here, as he has shown in his recordings of Bachís cantatas, that he is one of the finest conductors of Bachís sacred music currently recording.

Suzuki presents the 1749 version of the St. John Passion, a work that underwent many changes since its first performance in 1724. This fourth version, performed at the end of Bachís life, represents his ultimate vision of this great work. (Suzuki includes in an appendix three arias from the 1725 version that Bach removed from this later version.)

Nowhere, in any other historically informed recording of the St. John Passion, does one hear tension and drama as in the opening chorus on this recording. Suzukiís small forces (21 musicians and a choir of 20) and excellent choir, recorded almost perfectly, stand out here and present the essential version of this work. It is interesting to note that Suzuki uses a harpsichord for continuo accompaniment, which most composers do not use, and himself plays the harpsichord for this recording.

This recording is as close to perfection as is possible for this work. Each of the soloists is excellent, beginning with evangelist Gerd Türk, who, in both of the passions, is excellent, and the recitatives in this work take on a scale of intensity that is rarely heard. Counter-tenor Yoshikazu Mera is one of the revelations of the St. John Passion, and his singing of the aria Von den Stricken meiner Sunden is magnificent in its humility and grace. Es ist vollbracht, also sung by Yoshikazu Mera, is such a lucid expression of pathos that one almost wants to turn of the recording after it - it is a tough act to follow. Bass Peter Kooij is superb, and is certainly one of the finest Christs on record in this passion. However, soprano Ingrid Schmithusen lacks the profound depth that some of the other singers show.

But one of the stars of this recording is the choir, magnificent in tone and texture, which Suzuki controls almost perfectly. While there are not many choral movements in this work - with the exception of the short chorales - the two main choral movements, the one that opens the work and the penultimate movement, are performed magically.

Suzukiís St. Matthew Passion, recorded and released after the St. John, was in a difficult position. With much more competition on disc, and following such a brilliant recording of the St. John Passion, it was difficult to reach the same level of intensity. Indeed, the St. Matthew stands out much less than the St. John. It is excellent, and the overall sound is beautiful, with a very good separation heard between the two groups of the choir and the two orchestras. The forces are larger overall, but each choir and orchestra is naturally smaller, leading to some very attractive effects.

Again, Suzukiís attentiveness to detail pays off, and the texture of his choirs is impressive. Like the St. John, the St. Matthew Passion features many excellent soloists, and the orchestral intensity is present and profound. Suzuki opts for relatively slow tempi, amplifying the drama of the passion.

Countertenor Robin Blaze is one of the highlights of the St. Matthew Passion. His pure, clear voice rings out with such grace and depth that it goes beyond what most other singers have done with this work. He is full of humanity and he sounds very down to earth, never having that sound that countertenors often project of being well above the music.

Soprano Nancy Argenta is very good, but shows some weaknesses. In fact, she is something of a weak link in this chain, her voice not rising to the occasion, nor to the high standards of which she is capable. Her performance of the aria Blute nur, du liebes Herz! illustrates this, as she strives to reach certain notes with emotion but cannot do so. Nevertheless, her fine voice is a welcome addition to this passion.

Peter Kooij is an excellent Jesus, showing a magnificent emotional range, and the other soloists are also top-notch. In essence, Suzuki has found two slightly different sets of soloists for the two passions, but each set works almost perfectly.

This re-release will delight anyone who has not yet picked up these two magnificent passion recordings. The St. John is arguable the best recording available, and the St. Matthew is pretty close (if not for Nancy Argenta, I would probably put it at the top). The lower price for this set makes it essential to Bach fans. If you are unfamiliar with Suzukiís recordings of Bachís sacred vocal music - especially the cantatas - you owe it to yourself to get this set, which is the best introduction to his approach.

Kirk McElhearn


Visit the Bach Collegium Japan webpage for reviews of other releases in this series

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