In Dec 1999 BIS released Masaaki
Suzuki’s version of “The Passion according to St Matthew” (St
Matthew Passion) by J.S. Bach, (3 discs BIS 1000.02). It was subsequently
re-released in combination with the St. John Passion (5 discs,
BIS CD 1342/44) and now in excerpt format (BIS.SACD.1500) with
the added feature of SACD format.
good marketing and provides the listener with a variety of choices
to suit different circumstances. Given that the complete version
is 166’43” long, many will prefer the typical excerpt format
with 81’18” of music. Like any précis, the trade-off for time
saved is some original content lost.
the sake of review convenience this new release will be treated
Matthew Passion is the apotheosis of its genre. This is highly
religious music centring on the very core of Christian belief
- the story of the events leading up to the crucifixion (Passion-
from the Latin patior, ‘I suffer’) of Jesus Christ. But
then much of what Bach wrote has a strong religious focus and
without this inspiration his music may have not reached the
same lofty heights.
Matthew Passion was written during Bach’s period in Leipzig, and the text taken from the Martin Luther version of St. Matthew’s
Gospel, chapters 26-27. Bach borrowed words and sometimes melodies
from others in the writing of this work. He and his librettist
C.F. Henrici interpolated a series of “breathing spaces” in
the form of original Lutheran hymns. ”O Haupt voll Blut und
Wunden” (O Sacred Head sore wounded) which recurs throughout
the work is not from the pen of Bach at all!
genius of Bach is further manifested in the recitatives. These
would normally have been accompanied by a single instrument,
but in this instance have a particularly distinctive feature
in that whenever Jesus is speaking, Bach places a “warm halo
of strings” around Him, except as He speaks His final words.
Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan
are no strangers to those who love the music of Bach and appreciate
outstanding performance of his work. Currently Suzuki has released
about half (26?) of the discs required to complete the Cantatas.
This series has received constant accolades as new additions
appear. Suzuki’s recordings of the St. John Passion and Christmas
Oratorio received awards from the Gramophone magazine.
recording of the St Matthew Passion embodies all those ingredients
that have made preceding releases by Suzuki and the Bach Collegium
Japan so popular and well received; the ideal combination of superb singing,
beautiful instrumentation and appealing interpretations.
review two strong impressions quickly emerge:
is the exquisite “touch’ that Suzuki gives the performance.
This is challenging to articulate but reminiscent of what one
hears listening to Maria João Pires play a Chopin nocturne or
Julian Bream playing anything.
second is probably a product of the first. In comparison with
other favoured versions such as that of John Eliot Gardiner
(Archive 429 773-2) or Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi HM
1676.78 - 1998 version) a strong sense of reverence pervades
the entire performance. Doubtless Bach strove to incorporate
this vital sentiment - profound respect mingled with love -
into his original but the subliminal effect is easily lost through
interpretation. Even in those sections that require strong dynamic
contrasts this focus persists and the overall result sounds
a little more restrained than the favoured nominated versions.
Some have overlooked the contextual importance of this and referred
to Suzuki’s interpretation as being of introverted character
manifesting general blandness.
has also been levelled at the performance of Nancy Argenta (soprano)
but this writer is struggling to empathise, also preferring
the use of female voice in those solo areas to which it has
traditionally been assigned, over male voices. It must however
be agreed that a poor performance by a soloist can dampen enthusiasm
for a particular version of any work; conversely an outstanding
performance can be an important factor in establishing favoured
ranking. For example, in similar vein, the magnificent rendition
of “Laudamus te” by Brigitte Fassbaender from Eugen Jochum’s
recording of Bach’s Mass in B Minor (1982) has yet to be excelled
and enhances the overall personal ranking of this version, albeit
outdated in some ways.
adheres to the performance practices of the period including
the most appropriate instrumentation. This factor may be highly
complementary to the concept of conveying a spirit of reverence
throughout the music. It may also be a reason why it is not
so evident in performances where strong departure from such
is possible that those with acute empathy for the source of
inspiration on which Bach drew, will have not only a strong
musical appreciation for this version, but a greater emotional
is a splendid performance of St Matthew’s Passion. It is not
necessarily better than favoured versions such as those by Gardiner
or Herreweghe but it is different in a very positive and moving
way. The overall performance, combined with different presentation
options, make it a serious contender for first choice.
Visit the Bach
Collegium Japan webpage for reviews of other releases
in this series