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Bach (JS): St Matthew Passion (BWV 244)

Gerd Türk, tenor (Evangelist); Peter Kooy, bass (Jesus); Nancy Argenta, soprano; Robin Blaze, alto; Makoto Sakurada, tenor; Chiyuki Urano, bass
Bach Collegium Japan; Shizuoka Children's Choir
Dir: Masaaki Suzuki
rec: March 1999, Kobe, Shoin Women's University
BIS - CD-1000/1002 (3 CDs; 69'37"/53'52"/42'14")

This recording of Bach's St Matthew Passion doesn't belong to the category of very dramatic interpretations. It is rather introverted, a kind of meditation about the passion. There is nothing against that approach, as long as the dramatic character of the events isn't completely lost.
Those familiar with Suzuki's recordings of Bach's cantatas will recognize most names of the soloists. The advantage is great consistency and the familiarity of the singers with his approach. But I am not very happy with some of the choices he has made for this recording.

First some general points. I can understand that a conductor uses only 4 soloists for the arias in both choirs in a live performance, but is it unrealistic to expect 8 of them in a recording? I am not very happy with the sound of the recording. Both choirs contain 15 singers (4/3/4/4), but they sound larger. Maybe that is a matter of the acoustics. The choral sound is not as crisp and clear as one would expect. On the whole there is a little too much reverberation to my taste. The 'soprano in ripieno'-part is sung by - well, that is a little confusing. The list of the performers says: Shizuoka Children's Choir, but in the text of the passion the English text says: Chorale (Children's Choir), the German text: Choral (Knabenchor). The names of the children are given, but since I don't know the difference between boys' and girls' names in Japanese I just can't tell what is correct. On the basis of the sound I would guess: boys.

Like I said: I am not happy with every singer Suzuki has chosen. Nancy Argenta is a major disappointment. Her voice sounds very unpleasant, somewhat shrill. The soprano arias have all a bittersweet character, they are about love, gratitude and devotion - and Nancy Argenta fails to communicatte that.
The alto arias have a different character. They reflect pain and deep sorrow. Robin Blaze just doen't have the range of colours in his voice to bring that across. His voice lacks dramatic power to give way to the 'exclamatio'-character of the arias. His pronunciation isn't perfect too.
Makoto Sakurada doen't have a voice many will immediately fall for. It has a certain crispness. In that respect he reminds me a little of Nigel Rogers - although he sounds differently. His articulation is excellent, in particular in the recitativo accompagnato 'O Schmerz'. In his second recitative and aria he is far less convincing.
The bass Chiyuki Urano is a problem. He also sings the roles of Judas, St Peter, Pilate and the High Priest. His performance of the recitatives is too stiff and unflexible, and therefore anything but natural. It seems that singing the German text at a certain speed is too difficult for him. During the recording he is improving in the performance of the arias, but it does't move me at all.
The role of the Evangelist and of Jesus are very well sung by Gerd Türk and Peter Kooy respectively. There are some very moving moments. They both have the right voices, and give the text every attention it needs.
The orchestra is good, but not excellent. It lacks some drama and also some subtlety where it is needed. It doesn't illustrate the text as much as it should.

My main complaints about this recording are about the performance of the recitatives and about the articulation.
First the performance of the recitatives. More often than not they are sung as they have been written down by the composer. According to the performance habits of the baroque that is not what composers had in mind. The interpreter should follow the rhythm of the text rather than the rhythm of the music. That means that the length of notes can be reduced or extended, in accordance with the importance of the words or syllables. Recitatives should be 'spoken' rather than sung. Often the tempo in the recitatives is too slow. I would like today's singers to listen carefully to Kurt Equiluz, whose voice I never particularly liked as such, but who certainly knew how to sing a recitative.
The second point is about the lack of a really good and crisp articulation. In this respect a comparison with the recording of Gustav Leonhardt with the Tölzer Knabenchor (deutsche harmonia mundi - RD 77848) is interesting. The Tölzer Knabenchor articulates very sharply, the main words are stressed, and every part of the text gets a full emotional weight, whereas Suzuki's choir sounds rather pale and neutral. In Leonhardts recording the chorales are gripping, because of the emotional interpretation of the text. Suzuki seems to take them as moments of rest and reflexion, rather than as emotional reaction of the faithful.

The problem I have with Suzuki's recording is not the lack of drama or its introverted character, but a general blandness. Apart from some moments where both the Evangelist and the character of Jesus are involved, it never touches me.

Johan van Veen (© 2000)

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