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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St John Passion, BWV 245 (1739/49 version) [105:28]
Evangelist - James Gilchrist (tenor); Christus – Christian Immler (bass); Hana Blažíková (soprano); Damien Guillon (alto); Zachary Wilder (tenor);
Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
rec. 14-17 March, 2020, Kölner Philharmonie. DSD
German text and English translation included
BIS BIS-2551 SACD [31:29 + 72:56]

On the cover of this set of SACDs there’s the subtitle, ‘The Köln Recording’. The reason for this is quite important, and not just because Bach Collegium Japan habitually make their recordings in their home country. It’s worth summarising the very interesting back story to this release, part of which I gleaned from a note by Masaaki Suzuki in the booklet, augmented by an article by Ivan Hewitt in the Daily Telegraph, which I read last August.

The Covid-19 pandemic has cut a swathe through live music-making across the world. An early casualty was a projected European tour by Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan to celebrate the ensemble’s thirtieth anniversary. As originally planned, the tour was to take in eleven concerts in six different countries. However, only the first three concerts were given, the last of them being the one in London’s Barbican Centre, which my Seen and Heard colleague, Colin Clarke had the good fortune to attend (review). The next concert, in Lyon, was cancelled due to the Covid emergency in France but at that stage it looked as if the following scheduled concert at the Kölner Philharmonie would be feasible. However, a tightening of the German restrictions even as rehearsals were taking place forced the cancellation of the concert. Nothing daunted, Louwrens Langevoort, the hall’s director, proposed a live-streamed performance without audience. This suggestion, which was implemented, in turn led Masaaki Suzuki’s wife Tamaki, who sings alto in the choir, to propose the idea of making an audio recording too.

At incredibly short notice, BIS’s Robert von Bahr stepped up to the plate; immediately the idea was put to him he sanctioned shipping all the necessary equipment to Cologne. Producer Martin Sauer was contacted and made an urgent dash from Paris to supervise. As soon as the equipment and engineers were assembled work began. The sessions were highly pressured, not just because the spread of the virus was a concern but also because travel restrictions were literally tightening by the day and everyone had to think of how they were going to get home. So, for example, I believe that the soprano arias were recorded early on because Hana Blažíková was understandably anxious to get home to the Czech Republic. The numbers that required larger forces were set down next in order to free up as many musicians as possible to get home. The smaller scale pieces, including, I assume, the recitatives, were the last on the schedule. Disaster nearly struck on the last day when a passing policeman noticed that the hall was open when it should have been shut. He ordered the hall to close. Fortunately, he’d seen the streamed performance and when the situation was explained to him, he relented, allowing one more hour of recording. That was just enough. We can be hugely thankful for a music-loving policeman who was prepared to use a bit of discretion.

So, if ever it could be said that a recording had been made in the face of adversity, this was it. Furthermore, this may well have been the last chance to record the St John Passion with Masaaki Suzuki since I’ve read that he is shortly to retire, handing over the direction of BCJ to his son, Masato. Happily, we now have his second recording of the work to complement his compelling second thoughts on the St Matthew Passion, which BIS released earlier this year (review).

The first time I put the disc that contains Part One into the player I was rocked back on my heels. I can’t readily recall hearing an account of the opening chorus that is so urgent. It’s not just that the pace is swift – though it is – Suzuki, his choir and orchestra make the music crackle with electricity – the oboes piece through the texture - and the singers’ first exclamation ‘Herr’ really grabs your attention. I’d always thought that Sir John Eliot Gardiner took some beating when it comes to drama in Bach’s music but when I compared his superb live recording from 2003 (review) even he doesn’t match Suzuki’s urgency at this point. Gardiner takes 9:26 for this chorus, compared with Suzuki’s 8:16, and his reading, whilst equally full of tension, is rather weightier. I wondered if the circumstances behind this new recording might have had a bearing but when I read Kirk McElhearn’s review of Suzuki’s first recording, which I’ve not heard, I found he made specific reference to the tension and drama of the first chorus; so it may well be that Suzuki’s approach is consistent and not influenced by external factors.

I’ve said quite a bit about the opening chorus because it sets the tone for much of what is to follow. This is a taut and dramatic account of the St John Passion. Those characteristics inform a lot of what James Gilchrist does as the Evangelist. For instance, in his very first passage of recitative, he impels the narrative forward vividly. He never rushes but, by comparison, Mark Padmore on the Gardiner set is a bit more spacious in his delivery; that happens on several other occasions too. I’ve heard and greatly admired Gilchrist as the Evangelist before – he sings the role for Richard Egarr (review) and for Stephen Cleobury (review) – but here I think he excels himself. Right from the outset he draws the listener into the story. His use of tonal colours is always apposite and he paces the recitative to perfection. Above all, he takes great care over the enunciation of the text. I greatly admired, for example, the tenderness with which he relates the passage in Part Two where the dying Christ commits his mother to the care of the disciple whom he loved (St John). Just a few moments later, Gilchrist is searingly intense – as are the continuo players - when he describes the aftermath of Christ’s death with the veil of the Temple rent asunder. Earlier in Part Two, Gilchrist’s consummate narrative skill is a major factor in the thrilling pacing and dramatic intensity of the scene where Christ is brought before Pilate.

Christian Immler, as Christ, is an important contributor to that trial scene too. He sings all his passages of recitative very intelligently. He brings firmness of tone and a convincing vocal presence to the role. I admired his singing very much. He also makes fine impression singing the bass arias, not least ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’ which he sings with grave expressiveness, though for me Peter Harvey’s meditative delivery of that arioso on the Gardiner set is even more moving.

Suzuki’s other principal soloists are all excellent. Hana Blažíková has been a regular presence in Suzuki’s Bach recordings for several years and it’s easy to hear why this should be so. Her account of ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ is a delight; her voice is light and clear and she strikes just the right note of eagerness. She’s also very impressive in ‘Zerfließe, mein Herze’, though – on fine margins – I prefer Katharine Fuge on the Gardiner set whose voice has slightly less edge; the difference may be because Ms Blažíková seems a little more closely balanced. The alto arias are in the expert hands of Damien Guillon. All his contributions are very good indeed but best of all is ‘Es ist vollbracht’. Here, his plaintive tone is ideally suited to the music and he sings with great expression. He’s partnered by the gently eloquent viola da gamba of Rainer Zipperling. What Guillot can’t offer, of course, is the warmth of a female alto voice. Gardiner chooses that option and Bernarda Fink does a wonderful job for him. But a male alto voice brings its own rewards in this music and Guillot’s singing gave me a lot of pleasure. The tenor arias are sung by Zachary Wilder, an American artist who I can’t recall hearing before. The two tenor arias are challenging to say the least and Wilder does well. Interestingly, the words of the 1749 version are used for his Part Two aria; so instead of the more familiar ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’ we hear ‘Mein Jesus ach! dein schmerzhaft bitter Leiden’; the music is the same, though.

The singers of Bach Collegium Japan are magnificent throughout. Suzuki uses a chorus of 21 (5/6/5/5), which includes all the vocal soloists with the exception of James Gilchrist. The choir’s delivery is consistently incisive and their articulation of the speedier passages is exemplary as, for example, in ‘Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen’ where the lightness and accuracy mean that Bach’s vigorous contrapuntal writing is delivered with great clarity. In a different vein, they inject real venom into ‘Kreuzige’. The chorales are all sung splendidly though there were a few occasions when I preferred Gardiner’s way with the chorales to Suzuki’s.

The 21 instrumentalists of Bach Collegium Japan are just as impressive as their chorus colleagues and never once was I anything other than delighted by the obbligato contributions to the arias. The members of the continuo section are wonderfully stylish, none more so that Masato Suzuki who plays the harpsichord.

Masaaki Suzuki directs the performance in masterly fashion. Here we have a conductor who has been steeped for decades not just in Bach’s music per se but in the spiritual aspect of it. All that experience comes through in a reading which is innately dramatic but which in no way neglects the contemplative side of Bach’s great masterpiece. Suzuki’s way with this music stems from conviction as well as deep knowledge and I found that I was drawn into the piece right from the start.

Despite the incredibly short notice and unusually demanding time schedule, BIS have produced a recording that is fully worthy of this compelling performance. The sound is immediate, clear and vivid. When one thinks of the pressure under which this recording came into being, I can only take my hat off to producer Martin Sauer and the engineering team led by Stephen Cahen. Probably the best compliment I can pay to them is to say that had I not known of the extraordinary circumstances under which this recording was set down I would never have guessed on the evidence of my ears. The circumstances may have dictated haste but in no way have BIS’s usual very high audio standards been compromised. I listened to the stereo layer of these SACDs and was very impressed with the presence and clarity of the sound. The booklet is graced by an excellent essay by Robin Leaver.

There hasn’t been a great deal of good news in the musical world for much of 2020. Musicians around the globe have been greatly constrained, countless performances and recording sessions have been lost and livelihoods imperilled. But the opportunity to make this recording despite, indeed because of, the Covid emergency is a rare glimmer of light; truly a success born out of adversity.

However, forget the circumstances under which the recording was made. In the last analysis we can – and must – only judge this recording of the St John Passion by objective standards. By any measure it is a considerable achievement and a major addition to the discography of both Bach Collegium Japan and this great masterpiece.

John Quinn

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