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When Bach Collegium Japan performed the St John Passion in London early on in their spring 2020 European tour – celebrating BCJ’s 30th anniversary – the Barbican was already peppered with empty seats as the virus took hold. As Masaaki Suzuki recalled, by the time they had arrived in Cologne for the fourth and what was to be the final concert (live-streamed from an empty hall), a new urgency had rendered this a very dramatic recording. The Barbican concert was memorable for the wholeness of Suzuki’s vision, the unalloyed narrative of James Gilchrist’s ever-probing Evangelist – which gradually appeared to turn from interested reporter into the sincerest of followers – and a spectacularly unified and engaged portrayal by singers and instrumentalists alike.
If something of a harnessed ritual was lost in the intervening days between London and Cologne, here we have a reading that feels as if, deep in the psyche of the performers, they know this is all happening close to the wire. Gilchrist is again on masterly form, risking pinpoint precision for graphic description in a way that makes the experience feel ‘live’ in every respect. The electric crowd scenes are throughout born of a luminous imagery set up by the opening chorus, whose wailing oboes are underpinned by redoubtable bass lines (Suzuki adopts the contrabassoon option from the 1725 version) and brilliant continuo realisation, leaving the listener dripping with expectation in the dust and grime of seasoned pilgrimage. While Herreweghe’s recent account is a superb contemplation, elegantly shaped and refined in its internal balance, Suzuki takes us as co-travellers in a search of faith, not necessarily assuming us all as believers.
This means that the exchanges between Christ, Pilate and the Evangelist feel especially projected, and super-theatrically timed, to leave no one in any doubt of the implications as the stakes rise. Urgent but never pushed, Suzuki really ramps things up in the section when Pilate is trying to appease the baying crowd and persuade Christ to help himself; Yusuke Watanabe’s Pilate is exceptionally characterised as a central pivot in proceedings, a tragic cameo of a man who can only make a bad decision, until he fades irretrievably bruised into history.
The solo contributions are mainly frontrank. Zachary Wilder fares less well in ‘Mein Jesu, ach!’ than in his coruscating ‘Ach, mein Sinn’, but Damien Guillon’s sensitively etched singing continues where he left off in the St Matthew recording (4/20) in a heart-stopping ‘Es ist vollbracht’. Hana Blažíková’s pellucid voice has fast become one of the most engaging in modern Bach performance, as ‘Zerfliesse’ reveals, and Christian Immler exudes his geniality with consistent authority, notably in an assuaging ‘Mein teurer’.
For all the constraints that Covid-19 has inflicted on BCJ’s 30th-anniversary year, this extraordinarily vital, human and emotional rendering joins the recent
St Matthew in another effulgent release of exceptional expressive candour and range. It eclipses Suzuki’s initial recording from 1998, and with the award-winning St Matthew gives us a pair of Passions at the high table of modern Bach discography.
The Köln Recording
On 6 of March 2020, Bach Collegium Japan began their long-awaited 30th
anniversary tour of Europe with a performance of Bach's St John Passion in
Katowice, Poland. The same week Europe was becoming aware of the very stark
reality of the threat posed by the new Corona virus, Covid-19. Consequently, as
Masaaki Suzuki and his ensemble went on to perform in Dublin and then London,
concert halls across Europe were closing down and the remaining tour dates were cancelled.
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