10 Sep 2007

BACH: St. Matthew Passion (Excerpts)

There is much to admire in Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach performances with the Bach Collegium Japan, and this recording of excerpts from the St. Matthew Passion will remind the listener of the diverse ways in which this is so.

Among Bach ensembles, few can rival the Bach Collegium Japan for clarity and control, a control that is unflaggingly maintained, though best heard here in stunningly beautiful soft passages. Two chorales, the emblematic “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” and “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden,” emerge here not as familiar pauses between events, but as moments of depth, deepened through the breathtaking control of the rendition. Sometimes the control has a shadow side: for instance, in the canonic duet with choral interjections, “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen,” the solo lines lament Jesus’s being led away captive while the choir, in their role as the crowd of onlookers, exclaim their objection: “let him go, stop, unbind him!” Here the choir seems rather too controlled and soft; the objections become more like furtive comments among the crowd than forceful attempts to intercede. More’s the pity, as in other instances like the chorus “Sind Blitze, sind Donner,” the ensemble has fury and force in ample proportions.

If the ensemble is distinctive in its control and cultivation of the soft dynamic, the soloists are sensitive in this way, as well. The soprano aria, “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben,” sung by Nancy Argenta, is exquisite in its intimacy, and both Peter Kooij as Jesus and Gerd Türk as the Evangelist also show consummate ease in the full dynamic range of their roles—the dramatic force of certain passages is keenly exciting, but it is, I think, the soft passages that are the most memorable.

The excerpt format of the recording invites one to consider the selections as self-standing moments rather than part of the dramatic flow. And in that light, the alto aria, “Erbarme dich” is easily one of the high points of the recording. Counter-tenor Robin Blaze is at his best here with a soaring high range and compellingly engaging sense of line. And the rich interplay with the ornamental violin playing of Natsumi Wakamatsu makes for especially rapturous counterpoint.

The recording is not problem-free, however. In the imposing chorale fantasia on “O Mensch bewein dein Sünde gross,” the treble cantus firmus adds the sound of children’s choir, a well-considered echo of Bach’s scoring of the opening chorus. However, here it is precisely echo that is the problem. The cantus firmus sounds as though it is being sung somewhere else, and that somewhere else seems to have an exaggerated reverberation at odds with the main acoustic of the performance. The effect is both surprising and jarring.

Another problem surfaces in the excerpt format of the recording itself. Apart from the economic attraction of a one-disc affair, it is difficult to see the gain and easy to perceive the loss. In a number of the excerpts, there is a clear intent to provide a degree of cohesion, and that is welcome. But in other instances arias are severed from their immediate surroundings, which leads to disjuncture, ambiguity of reference and context, and the loss of the characteristic ebb and flow of declamation and lyricism. Instead, the isolated moments emerge as independent “favorites.” If one wants to listen to one’s favorites, the CD format in general makes that an easy thing to do. The record producers do not need to devise excerpt recordings to make this convenient. And in devising recordings of excerpts, they invite the listener to consider the work shorn of its beauty of integration. That’s a sad loss.

Steven Plank