Early on in Classical Explorer's existence, we featured Masaaki Suzuki's new St Matthew Passion, which it turns out went on to win a Gramophone Award in the Choral category. Here is Suzuki's reading of the companion piece, the St John Passion. This work, with these very performers live at the Barbican, has a very special meaning for me, as it was the last live music I heard before lockdown: my report is here.
We do indeed live in remarkable times. That concert was on March 13 this year and to a live audience at the Barbican. Just a few days later, the same artists performed the work complete in Cologne at the Philharmonie, making their debut there to an empty hall because of CoVID. Soon after, the performers returned to their relative homes to the safety of isolation. Here is that Cologne performance, complete:
The Cologne BIS performance is relevant, as it was recorded there on March 14th-17th. The artists had arrived in Germany intending to perform to an audience; as we have seen, they were told they could only perform to an empty hall. What happened next makes for quite a story. It was Suzuki's wife, Tamaki, herself a member of the Bach Collegium Japan, who suggested they capitalise on the time by making a recording. The Philharmonie was given free of charge for this. The recording team was itself a minor miracle as none of the usual BIS team was immediately available; producer Martin Sauer happened to be in Paris and was from his wife's birthday party untimely ripp'd (the accompanying documentation to the BIS set apologises profusely to his wife) The recording equipment came from Munich, but only because the recording it was scheduled for there had been cancelled. Although I have listed both this new and Suzuki's previous BIS recording below (the latter twice, as there is a release that couples the earlier BIS St Matthew and the St John Passions at a better price), there is no doubt that new recording represents one of the great Bach sets. Really, this St John deserves to take next year's Gramophone Choral Award.
The sheer embodied pain of the opening chorus is remarkable, more so than in the earlier BIS set (I would suggest it was even more so in the Barbican performance than either the Cologne recording or performance). It sets the tone for an account of the utmost potency. This is a drama of flesh and blood, not of piety.
The line-up of soloists is finely judged. The experienced James Gilchrist is an Evangelist par excellence, Christian Immler a fine Jesus. A pity in a sense there aren't more counter-tenor arias, for Damien Guillon excels in his "Es ist vollbracht!," his dialogue with the viola da gamba of Rainer Zipperling heart-stoppingly beautiful.
The SACD recording is absolutely of BIS' high standards, as is the presentation: the stark colours of the cover, blood red and black, making an inverted cross with surrounding thorns, tell their own story.
This is an unmissable companion to the new BIS St Matthew. The St John is a work that is a meditation on pain in all its forms, and yet one that ultimately offers the possibility of consolation, the final chorale a plea for reunification with the Christian Saviour and, by extension, with the Christian Godhead itself. Controversially, although St Matthew is generally considered to be the greater work (and one of the greatest works of art full stop), for me it has always been the St John Passion that has spoken straight to the heart; and nowhere more so than here.