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.


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