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