Sunday Night Journal, March 26, 2017
Sunday Night Journal, April 2, 2017

52 Albums, Week 13: Bach Collegium Japan - St. Matthew Passion (Bach)

Classical recordings just don't fit into the performer-plus-album-title format. Bach's name rightly should be first here, but I put the performers first because this is about their specific recording of the St. Matthew Passion.


Every year for the past four or five I've planned to listen to the St. Matthew Passion during Holy Week. I think I initially had intended to listen to it on Holy Saturday, but that was foolish--there are always too many other things going on. Every year except last year I've managed to hear only part of it, maybe one disc of the 3-CD set (Klemperer, 1962), or two of the 4-LP set (Karajan, 1973). The first runs 3 hours and 42 minutes, the second 3:24, so you can see how it can be a little difficult to find the time. I think it was the Klemperer version that I finally got all the way through last year.

This year I decided to start early. And that's one reason I'm writing this now: if you want to hear this Passion between now and Good Friday, you still have plenty of time. I also considered trying a different sort of recording. The ones I have are similar to each other and very much in the manner that was preferred in the mid-20th century: very large, dramatic, passionate, expressive, emotional. The orchestras are big and lush and loud, as are the choruses. The soloists are among the most famous singers of their time: Peter Pears, Dietrich Fishcer-Dieskau, Elizabeth Schwarkopf, et. al. Several of them appear in both recordings.

I'm not necessarily a big fan of the "period instruments" movement, which tries to approximate the resources available to composers in, for instance, Bach's time. But I did want to hear a different approach. I hate to say "more modern"--as I hate to say "old-fashioned" about the older ones--but it is a fact that tastes and fashions in performance have changed, and I was curious as to what a less lavish production would be like.

So, to get to the point: I'd heard good things about this recording, and had been considering buying it for some time. It's conducted by Masaaki Suzuki (and yes, a Japanese Bach specialist is to say the least off the beaten path). After reading about three dozen reviews of it and several others, I decided to go ahead. And I'm really glad I did.

It is very different from the others. Even someone like me who is not all that sensitive to nuances of interpretation can't help hearing it immediately. This performance is, compared to the others, small, restrained, and intimate. One reviewer also called it devout, and I think that's justified. A better word maybe is "contemplative." It's not that the others lack religious feeling--far from it--but the emphasis is on feeling, in a theatrical sort of way: the passion of Christ as a drama. This one feels more like church than theater; more like Fra Angelico than Raphael. 

But what I like about it most of all is its clarity. The orchestra and chorus are smaller, and the soloists less operatic. If you want to call the others romantic, you'd have to call this one classical. With bigger forces I often feel like the sheer quantity of sound is overwhelming the music. Things tend to get, to my ears, somewhat blurred and murky. But the Suzuki-Collegium recording is crystalline. The tempos are also faster. The Klemperer-Karajan approach tends toward the slow and majestic, with some of the choruses almost dirge-like. The quicker tempos don't make the music exactly light, but more focused and graceful. The others can seem a bit elephantine in comparison. 

Well, enough talk. Here is the soprano-alto aria "So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen". This wasn't my first choice for a sample, but it will have to do. Although the whole work appears to be on YouTube, all 103 segments, many or most of them won't play, and those that do are cut off abruptly. So, sorry, but at least you can get the basic idea. The choral part is not actually at the end but is interjected several times, as you'll hear.

Text in German:

So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen,
Mond und Licht
Ist vor Schmerzen untergangen.
Weil mein Jesus ist gefangen.
Sie fuhren ihn, er ist gebunden.

Laßt ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!

In English:

So my Jesus has been captured.
Moon and light
Have given way before pain
Because my Jesus has been captured.
They are leading him, he is bound.

Loose him, stop, do not bind him!

My only real reservation about the Suzuki performance is the sound of the strings, which is thin and dry. I would not want this to be my only recording. If you want to compare, here is the Klemperer recording of the same aria, plus the following chorus in the same clip. I would not blame you at all if you like it better. I'm not sure I don't like it better myself. If I could only have one, maybe that's the one I would pick. But right now I'm seriously enthused about Suzuki's. By the way, it's only 2 hours and 45 minutes. I don't think the faster tempos would account for a full hour of difference between it and Klemperers. Maybe it's a different edition, or there are some optional repeats that Suzuki omits? I haven't investigated that.

Here and here are a couple of interesting articles about Suzuki. The whole idea of a Bach Collegium in Japan is a little startling, but far from being some kind of dancing bear, it and its conductor are considered among the best in the world: Suzuki is described in one of those articles as "one of three supreme living interpreters of the Bach cantatas, masses, passions and motets."

The recording is on the Swedish label BIS, catalog number BIS 1000. It's a 3-CD set. Titles from BIS and other independent classical labels can be very conveniently bought as downloads from They provide a model for an online classical music store, including, for instance, the ability to download cover art, liner notes, etc., in PDF format. I got it from for $17.97, which I admit is part of the reason I picked it instead of other similar performances. But eMusic is a subscription service. (By the way, they are about to launch a completely redesigned site. I've been beta-testing it, and it is a massive improvement.)

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog. 


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"If you want to call the others romantic, you'd have to call this one classical."

Or baroque! ;-)

I've not heard this particular recording, but I am a big admirer of Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan. (A slightly embarrassing secret that I'll share just with you is that I have all 50+ discs in their Bach cantata series.)

I generally prefer the "historically informed performance" school over the big-boned, romantic school, for the reasons you mention: I find the music fleeter, clearer, brighter, and more intimate. For the St Matthew Passion specifically, my favourite version is Philippe Herreweghe's second recording. Herreweghe is the one interpreter of Bach's choral and vocal music that I would put ahead of Suzuki, but both are excellent.

I didn't yet read the articles you linked about Suzuki, but it is well-known in the music world that he's a devout Christian, and sees his performances of Bach as having religious, as well as aesthetic, significance for him. Perhaps something of that spirit is coming through in the "contemplative" dimension that you noticed.

I'm glad to hear about improvements at eMusic. Downloading my music from them has become quite convoluted in recent months as their downloader has stopped working properly with my Mac.

"Or baroque"--yes, that's why I didn't capitalize "classical" and "romantic". :-) I've always thought it odd that "baroque" applied to art suggests extremely ornate, but applied to music suggests relative restraint or simplicity.

The whole cantata series! Wow. My enthusiasm for the cantatas doesn't go anywhere near that far. They certainly have their magnificent moments but there are some pretty dull stretches.

The first of those articles I linked to is by Damien Thompson, and is as much about Suzuki's faith as his music. I think you'll find it interesting.

I found a lot of recommendations for Herrewhege when I was scouting. One or the other of his recordings seem to be generally considered up there with the very best.

Interesting Damian Thompson article, but this left me scratching my head:

Suzuki is a member of the Reformed Church in Japan, which adheres to Calvin’s teaching that the fate of the soul at death is ‘predestined’ by God. The Lord already knows whether people are headed for paradise or damnation, and there is absolutely nothing they can do to influence their eternal fate. ...

Suzuki doesn’t question for a moment that unbelievers are lost; but he is confident that the Lord can change hearts through music. Moreover, that music doesn’t need to be attached to religious words to do the work of salvation.

I find the Calvinist doctrine of predestination so confusing. Just how can music work to bring about salvation for those predestined to hell?

When predestination and free will are discussed my general policy is to throw up my hands and say "It's a mystery." :-)

We used to get into these discussion in C. S. Lewis meetings because we met in a Presbyterian seminary. When we got onto the subject of predestination or faith and works, I would always say, I have no idea how that works, and that all I have to say.


They were always pretty amazed that I had nothing to say.


"how that works" is a good way to put it. Because it does apparently work. God does know, and we do have a choice.

"When predestination and free will are discussed my general policy is to throw up my hands and say "It's a mystery.""

Quite right, but I find Calvinism to be pretty yucky.

I am listening to the St Matthew Passion right now, and have listened to it a lot, but I haven't heard the version Maclin has written about here, so I'll do that.

Baroque is probably my favourite music.

I don't really think I know enough about Calvinism, meaning what Calvin actually said, to say what I think about it. Though I can say that the ecclesiastical manifestations of it are pretty off-putting, and that's probably indicative.

I would have said baroque is my favorite at one time. I wouldn't say that now, not because I like baroque less but because I like others more. I'd still say that if I could only have one composer's music it would be Bach's.

I've discovered that I have a reservation about this performance, in addition to the one about the strings: the soloist for the alto parts is a countertenor. I'd really rather have a female voice there. In that aria I posted here, I kept thinking "That alto sounds kind of masculine." Yeah.

It's not unusual, btw, in fact it may be the norm in "authentic" performances.

Just became aware that the Pittsburgh Symphony is doing Bruckner's 8th at the end of the month, one performance only! It's a bit of a rarity to hear it live because it's so long, but apparently it's our conductor Manfred Honeck's favorite symphony. (Honeck, btw, is a devout Catholic, as was Bruckner.)

You're going, I hope?

Yes, certainly planning to! I saw them do Bruckner 4 a couple years ago and it was excellent -- the recording of it got a Grammy nomination. It may be that this will be recorded as well.

In the last few years the recordings coming from the Pittsburgh Symphony under Honeck have been getting rave reviews. I've bought a few of them and loved them.

I was fortunate enough to be at the concert back in 2006 which, unbeknownst to most of the audience, sealed the deal for his becoming our next musical director.

He was very much an unknown quantity at that time, as he was largely unfamiliar to American classical music listeners. But he's turned out to be a huge success.

The Bruckner 8 on Sunday afternoon was magnificent! One of the best orchestral concerts I've ever attended. Manfred Honeck has written that this is his favorite symphony, and he certainly conducted it that way. If it wasn't recorded it should have been -- everything was about as perfect as it could be.

Sounds great!

I haven't watched it yet, but here's a brief discussion of the symphony by Honeck:

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