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Recordings

J. S. Bach.  St. John Passion
25 Sep 2006

BACH: St. John Passion

The Bach Passions combine drama, sublimity of expression, and deeply devotional reflection in such a powerful way that we invariably tend to set them apart from other liturgical works.

J. S. Bach. St. John Passion

Midori Suzuki, soprano; Robin Blaze, countertenor; Gerd Türk, tenor; Chiyuki Urano, bass baritone; Shephan MacLeod, bass; Bach Collegium Japan; Masaaki Suzuki, Conductor.

EuroArts Invitation 2050396 [DVD]

$17.99  Click to buy

And one must imagine then that performances of the Passions accordingly tend to call forth and inspire extraordinary results, in intent, at least, if not uniformly in realization: extraordinary works that we handle with extraordinary care. And extraordinary care is well manifest in this recent release of a live concert performance of the St. John Passion by Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan.

The choir of sixteen singers, which includes all of the soloists except the evangelist, sings with decorous control, careful phrasing and articulation, and an over-all tidiness that serves the musical style well. Particularly dramatic moments like the “Kreuzige!” exclamations are far from constrained, but more often than not, it is a careful control that is most characteristic . . . and beautiful for it. The chorales no less than the choruses are highly polished, and show a wonderful sense of alternating strong-weak stresses in the subdivision of the pulse.

Gerd Türk brings to the evangelist’s role (and the other tenor solos) a buoyant and light sound with an easy high register, as well as a compelling dramatic sense that especially surfaces in moments of heightened expression. The Swiss bass, Stephan MacLeod, gives a beautifully contoured “Betrachte, meine Seel” that complements the poetic reflection with a memorable musical warmth. Soprano Midori Suzuki’s bright and well-focused sound is an elegant contribution to the ensemble, and her agile execution is notable in the passage work of “Ich folge dir.” The English countertenor Robin Blaze also has a well-focused sound and sensitive expression. However, his sound is somewhat small-bored, an advantage when matched with the reediness of the solo viola da gamba in “Es ist vollbracht,” though lacking in heft in the triumphant “Der Held aus Juda” section of the same aria.

I much favor the degree of integration that results from having the soloists as members of the chorus. However, in the end I would have wished there were more soloists for the roles. MacLeod sings both the part of Jesus as well as reflective poetry on the plight of Jesus; Türk similarly sings both the narrative and reflective poetry with a blurring of dramatic voice and function the result. It was welcome to hear such fine singers sing more rather than less, admittedly, but dramatic structure suggests other priorities.

Suzuki’s performance is one to savor. Bach’s extraordinary work is well met with extraordinarily stylish and sensitive execution—a beautiful combination, indeed.

Steven Plank

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