Bach’s St John Passion from Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan

New Zealand Festival 2014

Bach Collegium Japan conducted by  Masaaki Suzuki

J.S.Bach St. John Passion, BWV 245

Michael Fowler Centre

Wednesday 5 March 2014, 8 pm

Formed in 1990 to introduce Japanese audiences to great works from the Baroque period, Bach Collegium Japan has since toured the world and appeared at major festivals including the BBC Proms and Edinburgh Festival. Musical Director Masaaki Suzuki is regarded as an international authority on the work of Bach. The ensemble he chose for this performance comprised some 18 singers and 19 instrumentalists, with vocal soloists being drawn from the choristers.

The St. John Passion has two parts: Part One relates the story of Judas’ betrayal and Jesus’ arrest in the garden, then his examination before the High Priest, where the striking story of Peter’s denial and the cock’s crow is played out. Part Two moves to Jesus’ trial before Pilate, whose initial unwillingness to condemn him is eventually swayed by the clamour of the mob.

The opening chorus was delivered with great verve and power but the approach in Part One thereafter struck me as being a largely straightforward narration of events: the Evangelist’s recital of the story was by Gerd Turk who adopted a clear speech idiom in his delivery, faultlessly navigating his way round Bach’s fluctuating tonalities. The choruses and chorales observed almost jaunty tempi, and did not linger in contemplative vein, simply filling the role of observer and commentator. All were impeccably presented but left me feeling somewhat disconcerted by the dispassionate style of delivery that had been chosen. Was this the prototypical Oriental reserve?

Was it the ‘flat’ vocal acoustic that has so often beset the Fowler Centre? Or an unfavourable location for our seats (centre front stalls, about a dozen rows back)? The exceptions were the wonderfully heartfelt arias sung by alto Clint van der Linde and soprano Joanne Lunn.

From the start of Part Two, however, the accelerating sense of drama was almost palpable. The excellent soloists were critical to this, but it most obviously lay with the chorus, whose mood rapidly moved from crowd to mob. Their angry self-justification for the charges hurled at Jesus built inexorably to their baying wildly for his blood, clearly determined not to be done out of the bloodthirsty spectacle of crucifixion by any legal niceties Pilate might entertain. Now every note and phrase built the riveting drama of Western history’s most famous trial and death sentence. By contrast, when all was done, the chorales and solos became intensely reverent and contemplative, with every musician projecting a mood of deep reflection on Jesus’ sacrifice and inspiration to his followers.

There was, however, one aspect of this performance which I found very disappointing. In those arias which have instrumental obbligati, Bach has shown us a consummate marriage of his powers as both vocal and instrumental writer. The genius of, say, the double violin concerto meets the magic of the choral repertoire’s consummate composer in a way that no other has ever got within cooee of. Yet in every obbligato number last evening, the instrumental parts were emasculated almost out of recognition, sometimes being actually inaudible even in the front stalls. The pitifully apologetic viol in “It is accomplished!” had me almost weeping at the lost opportunity. These numbers are, in my view, the richest, most intricate, and intimate, conversations in the vocal repertoire, but they were sorely let down here.

Nevertheless, the consummate technical powers of the Collegium and the direction of Masaaki Suzuki ensured that this was a performance which thrilled the audience, many of whom rose to their feet at the finish. The huge turnout, for what some might label a rather cerebral event, was clear testament to the fact that listeners are thirsty for more high-quality classical music, whose presence in Festival programming has been sadly diminished in recent times.


Gunter Herbig and his Brazilian-German guitar at St Andrew’s lunchtime recital

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts

Gunter Herbig – guitar

Music by Dilermando Reis, J S Bach and Villa-Lobos

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 5 March, 12:15 pm

Gunther Herbig has been a distinguished figure in Wellington music for some years and was for a time head of classical guitar at the New Zealand School of Music; he remains in Wellington though now teaching at Auckland University. His background – born in Brazil and growing up in Portugal and Germany – gives him a unique background as a musician and guitarist, obviously in both linguistic and musical terms.

His first two pieces were by Brazilian composer, Dilermando Reis (1916-1977), whose music was unashamedly sentimental and romantic. It was clear from the start that Herbig felt a strong affinity with him, as he created the feeling that he was playing spontaneously, embraced by the unaffected character of the music. Perhaps not strong in a memorable sense, Ternura and Se ela perguntar suggested to me the retiring sadness of the Portuguese popular fado song tradition, which I happen to be addicted to. One of the characteristics was a beguiling tendency to pause, to hesitate in mid-phrase, in the fashion of 19th century salon music that filled the piano albums found in our grand-parents’ piano stools.

And he finished the recital with the more famous Brazilian, Villa-Lobos: three pieces called ‘chôro’ (I noted his pronunciation: ‘sho’ru’) which, he explained, were not really in that genre. These were pieces from his Suíte popular brasileira written in 1928, based, as their names indicated, on European dances: Mazurka chôro, Schottish chôro and Valsa chôro. The ‘real’ chôros were about 15 in number, written through the 1920s for orchestra or a great variety of instruments.

The mazurka and the waltz bore some signs of their rhythmic inspiration, though I wondered where the composer had picked up his impressions of the schottish. They all offered Herbig the chance to reveal the range of subtle articulation available on the guitar, through plucking with the finger nails or the finger-tips, plucking close to the bridge or over the finger-board, forming the same notes with the left hand high on the fingerboard or near the nut. They were most charming if light-weight pieces by this prolific composer.

(It’s always interesting to be side-tracked when exploring Internet resources. I had not been aware that Villa-Lobos had damaged his reputation in the late 30s by becoming an acolyte of President Getulio Vargas in his third, dictatorial period from 1937 to 1945, writing ‘patriotic’ music after the pattern of other dictators of that time).

The serious, classical piece in the programme was Bach’s first Lute Suite, BWV 996. As with the previous pieces, Herbig spoke about its provenance, though without using the microphone and he was hard to hear, even eight or so rows back. Bach was apparently inspired to write these, though not a lutenist himself, by the great lute composer and player Sylvius Leopold Weiss, who was almost exactly Bach’s contemporary. It sounded fine on the guitar for Herbig had the taste and skill to adorn the music with enlivening variety, in dynamics and rubato, in articulation and pacing, capturing the charming meandering character of the Präludium, lending interest to the Allemande by seeming to disguise its rhythm and giving the Courante a very deliberate pace so that it seemed to be jogging rather than running; it allowed the sophisticated melodic line to be properly enjoyed. Herbig’s skill in employing all the refined techniques at his command, as well as all sorts of appropriate ornaments, was best displayed in leisurely paced Sarabande; the two last movements, Bourrée and Gigue, captured a lively spirit in dancing rhythms. Was Bach (or Herbig) teasing us by bringing his gigue to what seemed a somewhat unannounced end?

In all, music that was very skilled, balanced and highly suitable for the digestion of empadas or bratwurst.