Bach: Matthäuspassion - Suzuki
BIS BIS-2500 (2 discs)
Classical - Vocal
Carolyn Sampson, soprano
Aki Matsui, soprano
Damien Guillon, alto
Clint van der Linde, alto
Makoto Sakurada, tenor
Zachary Wilder, tenor
Christian Immler, bass
Toru Kaku, bass
Benjamin Bruns, Evangelist
Bach Collegium Japan
Masaaki Suzuki, conductor
Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan made their first recording of the St Matthew Passion in March 1999. Twenty years later, in April 2019, it was time once again, as the singers and players gathered in the concert hall of the Saitama Arts Theater in Japan. ‘A profound joy’ is how Masaaki Suzuki describes his emotion at the opportunity to record Bach’s great fresco of Christ’s Passion for a second time. And this time, he and his ensemble have brought with them into the concert hall a profound and collective familiarity with Bach’s choral music, after having recorded more or less all of it in the meantime, including the complete sacred cantatas.
For his Evangelist, Suzuki has selected the young German tenor Benjamin Bruns, making his first appearance on BIS. Among the other soloists are familiar names including Carolyn Sampson, Damien Guillon, Makoto Sakurada and Christian Immler.
Review by Adrian Quanjer - February 27, 2020
It looks as though there are as many recordings of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion as there are views on how it should be done. Reading the often very detailed comments in the liner notes of each version, one cannot escape the impression that scholars find it difficult to agree on one single historically informed practice. For me, it’s one of the fascinations of Bach’s oeuvre, in particular as regards this undisputed “superlative example of the oratorio tradition”. Each version opens another door: another way of looking at it. Isn’t that divine? I have 7 versions on Blu-ray, SACD, DVD, and RBCD and I like them all for different reasons. And there is always room for one more….
This is the second time that Mazaaki Suzuki recorded the Saint Matthew Passion for BIS. Is it because he sees it differently now than he did then? Apart from the fact that this time we get the complete version instead of the previous excerpts only, there is indeed one notable difference: The organ! In the words of Masaaki Suzuki: “with this recording, we were able to try something that was not possible before. This is the construction and use of a new organ for the basso continuo, the indispensable bass line in baroque music. The organ that J. S. Bach used for church music ..” (read all about it in Suzuki’s personal note).
Although Suzuki’s reading is in keeping with modern practice, his opening chorus is slower than most, taking me back to the pre-Harnoncourt era when the Saint Matthew Passion still was a monument of serious business. Suzuki takes 8:12 against Butt (Dunedin Consort, Linn) 6:40. However, I soon became aware that Suzuki is neither too slow nor too fast. Proving that a first impression is no more than what it is, and therefore not always a good yardstick. What does emerge is that he is a fantastic storyteller, keeping the audience spellbound, no matter how often one has heard the gospel. Moreover, he is precise and articulate. No single note goes missing. He only takes extra time, so it would seem to me, if he thinks the tale has something to say, as though to allow for the narrative to sink in. On the whole an exemplary integration of text and music.
As for the cast, I noted the absence of some of the familiar soloists which Suzuki had worked with in the past during the cantata recording sessions, like Gerd Türk, Peter Kooy, and Robin Blaze. But the German tenor, Benjamin Bruns, whom I know mainly as an opera singer, is a worthy ‘newcomer’ and a good choice for the role of Evangelist. His diction is perfect and for all those who follow the German text an absolute sine qua non. The soprano, Carolyn Sampson, takes her credentials from previous BIS Cantata recordings and needs, as far as I’m concerned, no further introduction. The bass, Christian Immler, is in a certain way ‘new’ as well. This former Tölzer Knabenchor alto has built a solid name in the world of Oratorio. His warm bass-baryton voice lends itself very well for the demanding Christus role. The counter-tenor, Damien Guillon, has participated on an on-off basis, mostly as a stand-in for Robin Blaze. I like his voice better than that of Blaze and I see this as a clear improvement. Other names retained from the Cantata recordings are the excellent Japanese Soprano, Aki Matsui and the Tenor, Makoto Sakurada.
Good Friday 2020 is swiftly approaching, leaving little time for a detailed description, for which I may refer to the excellent and well-researched liner notes from Robin A. Leaver, nor for an account of every single part. Lifting out some highlights I’d nonetheless like to share my views on some of the main arias. The first is, of course, ‘Buβ und Reu’, sung with absolute control by Damien Guillon. More counter-tenors are able to sing the part ‘in tune’, but have to make such an effort to do so, that there is hardly any room for adding musical substance. Guillon does. An ideal pupil of Andreas Scholl and as good as Philippe Jaruski. Aki Matsui shines with a deeply moving voice in ‘Blute nur, du liebes Herz!’ What a lovely voice she has. And Carolyn Sampson delivers an immensely captivating ‘Ich will dir mein Herze schenken.‘
Integration at its best can be found in ‘O Schmerz! Hier zittert das gequälte Herz’ (19) and subsequent 'Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen' (20) where the choir and Makoto Sakurada (tenor) make an impressive statement. Similarly in ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen‘ (27 a) and ‘Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden?’ (27 b), where Carolyn Sampson and Damien Guillon alternate with the full choir (I and II). A powerful experience. Further examples in part two. Like ‘Sehet Jesu hat die Hand’.
‘Erbarme dich’ (39) is no doubt the most famous alto aria, sung here by the South African, Clint van der Linde. New to me, but with his interpretation he found the path straight to my heart. He brings drama, without being dramatic. With ‘Am Abend, da es kühle war’ (64) and subsequent ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’ (65) comes for me a moment of repentance, reflection and fulfillment. Christian Immler shows here in an emotional yet positively comforting vein what he is musically capable of.
It goes without saying that Mazaaki Suzuki and his musicians put everything in a well-measured and well-judged frame, playing as always on period instruments. And, yes, the organ does give “the indispensable bass line”. The solo team mixes with the choristers as is Suzuki’s practice, making up a beautiful sound panel.
I’ve added this version to the ones that I have in low- and high-res. As I said, there is always room for one more, and especially this one.
Full text is given in the original, German language, with English translation. The liner notes are in English, German and French. The recording was made in April 2019 at the Saitama Arts Theater Concert Hall, Japan, produced by Marion Schwebel and sound engineered by Thore Brinkmann, both from Take5 Music Production. Need I say more?
Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France
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