wed 24/07/2024

Bach St John Passion, Bach Collegium Japan, Suzuki, Barbican review - intense pain and dancing consolation | reviews, news & interviews

Bach St John Passion, Bach Collegium Japan, Suzuki, Barbican review - intense pain and dancing consolation

Bach St John Passion, Bach Collegium Japan, Suzuki, Barbican review - intense pain and dancing consolation

Fast-moving but never rushed, a visceral approach powerfully unfolds a saga of suffering

Masaaki Suzuki: intense hard work on meaningK Miura

Eyes watering, heart thumping, hands clenched: no, not The Thing, but a spontaneous reaction to the opening of Bach's St John Passion in the urgent hands of Masaaki Suzuki. How his Bach Collegium oboes seared with their semitonal clashes while bass lines throbbed with pain, before the chorus added a different, supernatural turn of the screw.

Immediate indeed, but this Passion was never too fast, only continuous in its drama so that even the chorales, with every word illuminated as Bach so expressively set it, hit home like a Greek chorus reacting to the immediate situation rather than as the expression of a Lutheran congregation at some distance from the events in Jerusalem according to St John.

This Passion is visceral and violent, with ear-severing, beating, scourging, leg-breaking and – as John Eliot Gardiner hears it in that “overture” – nails being driven through hands to the cross. Evocation of all but the latter falls to the tenor Evangelist’s narration. James Gilchrist’s intensity can sometimes seem like a square peg in a round hole, if the performance around him is too polite or smooth. Here his teamwork with Suzukis father and son (on organ), harpsichordist Haru Kitamika and cellist Rainer Zipperling with his rich and resonant low notes was perfect and dovetailed into every number. The 20 chorus members – 22 when Evangelist and Christus joined them at the end - were his equals in driving home the text, highlighting why Bach chooses to add harmonic twists to initial simplicity. Suzuki works long and hard on the meaning that rarely comes over with the more abstract British choirs, and it always shows in the end result. Bach Collegium Japan and soloists at the end of Bach St John Passion performanceStepping out of the line (full forces at concert's end pictured above by Damaris Brown) were three of the set-piece soloists; the fourth, the charismatic Christian Immler, sang arias as well as Christus, given just the right amount of space for the deeply moving concern of the son for the mother about to be left behind, the slaking of thirst and the last words. The voice is more baritone than bass, but you can't have everything in Bach's wide-ranging compasses. Hana Blažíková’s singular soprano is the voice as instrument, though not inexpressive at all: an oboe to the soft period flutes and, for the final dissolve into tears, to the cor-anglais-ish tenor oboe da caccia. It’s an odd combination, but I like it.

Softer were Damien Guillon’s countertenor and, in middle and lower register, Zachary Wilder’s tenor; the first arias of both seemed to call for voices a size bigger; but in fact Wilder provided the most moving sustained singing of Part Two, soaring upwards with heart and soul in “Ach windet euch nicht” (“Do not writhe so”). “Es ist vollbracht” (“it is accomplished”) was still the centre of sustained gravity, riveting by virtue of Zipperling’s wraith-like viola da gamba solo, but one wanted more expression from Guillon here.

Nothing, even so, took away from the cohesion of the whole. Suzuki knows how to make the dances trip, to give the meditations space. His strings preserve a certain inwardness but still project the essence without anything too hard-hit. Given the circumstances, it was something of a miracle that everyone appeared as advertised; maybe the trial of difficult times around the world gave the performance an extra edge. When a St John Passion leaves you as stunned as this one, you simply have to make a note to avoid hearing it live again, if possible, for the next couple of years. And it’s good, at least, that we have Suzuki’s extraordinary new recording of the St Matthew Passion to save up for savouring over the Easter weekend.

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