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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St Matthew Passion
Benjamin Bruns (tenor), Evangelist; Christian Immler (baritone), Christus; Toru Kaku (bass), Judas/Pilate/High Priest/Chief Priest (1); Carolyn Sampson (soprano); Aki Matsui (soprano); Damien Guillon (alto); Clint van der Linde (alto); Makato Sakurada (tenor); Zachary Wilder (tenor)
Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
rec. 2019; Saitama Arts Theatre Concert Hall, Tokyo
BIS BIS2500 SACD [2 discs: 162:00]

The recently completed Bach cantata cycle from Masaaki Suzuki with the Bach Collegium Japan has rightly received many plaudits: it’s a superb blend of expression and directness. Here is Suzuki’s St Matthew Passion, which joyfully exhibits a similar combination of qualities - also with the Bach Collegium and some of the same soloists as those with whom Suzuki worked for the cantatas. It’s his second release of this Passion, the first being 20 years ago on BIS 1000/2 (or with the St John on BIS 1342/4).

Transparency, precision, clarity of instrumental articulation and great, yet appropriately disciplined, emotion distinguish this two-SACD set from BIS. The St Matthew Passion is a long work with much narrative (see the praise below for Benjamin Bruns’s Evangelist: our interest and involvement never lapse). But there are also moments of pathos, pain and drama. Suzuki has the gift of rendering progress through the Passion’s nearly three hours even and consistent, without for a second losing the impact of high points, surprises, revelations, and of the fulfilment of the inevitable. Above all, these musicians are conscious of - and intimately committed to offering us - the infinite beauty of one of Bach’s arguably two greatest sacred masterpieces.

As Robin Leaver points out in his essay in the booklet, Leipzigers would hardly have heard the St Matthew Passion as we usually do. It was not a self-standing tour de force of an oratorio. It was conceived for a climacteric in the church year. On Good Friday (it was first heard on that day in 1727), a work of special gravity was required for the long-awaited intensity of Easter. Such Passions were in a still developing tradition where the liturgy in its own right was paramount.

Fidelity to this tradition is central to Suzuki’s approach; it forms the basis for the choices he has made. From the glorious opening ‘Kommt, ihr Töchter’ we set aside any swelling, virtuosity, pomposity or self-conscious attempt to project individual effort or identity.

For these musicians under Suzuki’s gentle yet informed guidance, Bach invites us to contemplate our intimate relationship with his and our God; he eschews self-aggrandisement preferring, surely, self-awareness. Remember, too, that Lutheran individuals’ relationships with the divine are personal ones devoid of priestly intercession. Suzuki communicates the raw momentum and embrace of such relationships: listen to the energy in the recitative-chorus alternation of ‘Und da’…‘Desgelichen’, for instance. And the snappy interchange in ‘Sehet, Jesus’ two numbers later. Suzuki seems to be taking the St Matthew Passion’s librettist, Picander, at his word: believers only! Nevertheless, this is an intensely musical interpretation - not an exhortative or ‘advisory’ one.

In Suzuki’s splendid account of the Passion transparency is to the fore… arias, recitatives, duos and indeed choruses are all articulated cleanly. There is no place here for pride or grandiosity. Listen to the continuo in ‘Buß und Reu’: the bass lines in particular weave to complement and strengthen its impact. The upper lines - flute especially - play with experience and confidence to advance the whole; not to shine. This has the result of giving Suzuki’s account a highly musical and down-to-earth feeling. Yet one which never abandons the numinous.

The performance’s tempi vary from the perhaps slightly more stately than you might expect - in the manner of John Butt’s exemplary recording (Linn 313) from a couple of years ago - to the sprightlier style of Gardiner (Soli Deo Gloria 725, a year earlier). This happy sensitivity to pace works well. That’s because Suzuki’s strong sense of structure serves to reinforce the ardour and conviction of Bach whilst implicitly respecting the tradition of German Passions as they were being written in the first quarter of the eighteenth century.

Another prizable quality of such an approach (and maybe a surprise to the unprepared or unwary) is this recording’s ample freshness (again in Butt’s mould) as we follow this St Matthew Passion. And follow it we must. The soloists’ skills and conviction as they envelop themselves in the narrative are compelling and welcome.

It would be frivolous to suggest that one is hearing the Passion ‘for the first time’. Yet Suzuki’s precision, focus and crystalline intensity do expose important and striking aspects of the music; they refocus for us the work’s myriad components and the ways in which those come together to produce approachability in the Passion’s monumentality.

The technique and confidence of Suzuki’s musicians quietly (almost passively, maybe) encourage us to revel in new insights into the work as a whole, as well as into its discrete passages and moments. This artlessness also helps to respond to this for the truly satisfying and invigorating interpretation and performance which it is. We know that every musician has a part to play, no matter how small and/or apparently ‘subsidiary’. That the musicians here are so accomplished also allows us to appreciate the inevitability of the passion story - and not always without leaving the suffering unmitigated. Suzuki and his forces have seen it all before. But they are not tarnished. Their enthusiasm safely and appropriately draws attention to such searing emotions as guilt and unquenched regret. Not every version of this colossal work handles these interpretative aspects so well… spectacle and proportion can easily take over from integrity and humility.

Through Suzuki’s account emerges an awareness on our part that it was with music as profound and beautiful as this that Bach successfully - and forever - made a relationship between God and congregation approachable, immediate, ready. Respect for the original context in which the St Matthew Passion was first performed (see above) again.

The players are miked in a pleasingly forward way. The text is always audible and comprehensible to the last syllable. Communication and expression are completely unimpeded. But neither does anything mundane ever creep in. Listen to any of the recitatives/recitative-chorales… ‘Da kam Jesus mid ihnen’ - ‘O Schmerz!’, followed by the aria and chorus ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesus wachen’, for instance. Suzuki is demonstrably giving equal weight to the core values of the Passion - and not through any sleight of hand in the act of performance: he knows that the poignancy of personal pain and acceptance of loss are central to the Passion.

So the disciples’ attempt to assuage the terror of knowing (and experiencing, and at last accepting) what is about to happen is made all the more moving by the extremity of Christ’s own distress… ‘Meine Seele ist betrübt bis an den Tod’. Their reactions to events are highly individual. No two people are likely to be able to reconcile suffering and its purpose (the resurrection yet to come) in the same way. So Suzuki deliberately concentrates on the fact that these are real people with identifiable fears and determination. The mimetic is firmly evident - not gesture, formula, stylisation.

But none of this would mean very much - might perhaps not even work successfully at all - if Suzuki weren’t intelligently ‘extracting’ such rawness, naturalness and closeness to reality from Bach’s music. He achieves this with emphases, tightenings, slackenings. He repeatedly tenses and relaxes. Each (interposing) recitative, each aria, each chorale advances the narrative - gently and sensitively; never rushing… however rich or colourful Bach’s writing is. He fuses humanity and divinity purely through music (textures, tempi, tessiture, sonorities, tonalities, contrasts, melodic memory).

The way, for example, in which Suzuki and his forces build the tension in ‘So ist mein Jesus’ is an example. It’s one thing to simulate strain, anxiety and momentum in crescendi and accelerandi - almost for their own sakes; it’s quite another to feel that Bach’s utter despair at Christ’s being forced to take a step that he cannot go back upon. His response (‘Stecke dein Schwert’… ‘Es muss also gehen’) reinforces the whole purpose of the Passion. Here (as throughout) Suzuki necessarily bases his interpretation on the text. But his command of the subtleties of Bach’s orchestration, the relative sonorities of the Christus’s (Christian Immler) baritone set against the particular combination of the second viola with continuo make the statement quietly yet more forcefully than ever. Though without any spurious flashes of ‘action’. Inevitability again.

The soloists (instrumental and vocal) on this recording are all strong. Of note must be the newly-constructed organ (for use in the continuo) built by Marc Garnier largely under Suzuki’s direction to come as close as possible to the larger instrument installed on the west gallery in Baroque churches, and not the smaller positiv, which we often hear. What a rich, rounded, full and impressive organ sound it is. It, too, has an immediacy and directness in the all-important continuo, but also a delectable ampleness elsewhere and is played by Suzuki's son Masato.

The vocal principals, too, are excellent in every way. Tenor Benjamin Bruns’s Evangelist is outstanding. His is a rich, sonorous and colourful voice. He aptly varies his tone according to circumstance… one is struck by passion, compassion, regret, anger, joy, horror, and ultimately by resignation as Bruns articulates them. This is in the mould of an Ernst Haefliger, Fritz Wunderlich, Peter Pears. Although there is nothing unduly ‘routine’ about the way in which Bruns leads the Passion’s unfolding, it isn’t embellishment. We are there watching, suffering, with him.

For many who know the St Matthew Passion ‘Erbarme dich’ is a touchstone aria. Suzuki with soloist Damien Guillon and violinist Ryu Terakado quietly and quickly take the listener by the hand from the first bar. The delivery of this most poignant text of Picander is vibrant and pleading, yet devoid of maudlin. The violin’s intonation is sweet yet unequivocally commanding. The continuo (consistently excellent throughout this recording) is sympathetic, responsive, mellow. There can surely be no better embodiment of mercy than that gathered in tears by this dedicated ensemble here.

This is a St Matthew Passion for those who want, perhaps, to strip away layers of demonstration, didacticism (albeit well-intentioned) and effusiveness. You will not, though, find anything pedestrian in Suzuki’s interpretation. It may well be that he aimed to march towards what we think those early performances of the Passion must have been like. Although the St Matthew Passion is through and through a homiletic composition, Suzuki appeals to drama, honesty, emotion (controlled - because this is art, not psychology) to guide him. Significantly, such an approach gives appropriate prominence to the work’s sheer beauty and musical appeal. Thus, also, are Bach’s religious intentions conveyed.

The Saitama Arts Theatre Concert Hall in Tokyo is a different venue to that used for Suzuki’s cantata cycle. It’s spacious and open without being too cavernous; it gives just the right sense of occasion, and sponsors excellent projection of soloists, chorus and instrumentalists. The SACD format, engineered by the experts at BIS serves only to enhance the sense of the depth of the recorded sound stage. The set comes with a hundred-page booklet, which contains a track listing, two informative essays (in English, German and French) on the Passion, brief bios (with some pictures) of the performers and the full libretto in German and English. There are almost 90 complete recordings of the St Matthew Passion in the current catalogue. This one must now be considered as standing proud near the very top; it is heartily recommended without hesitation.

Mark Sealey

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