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!
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 eClassical.com. 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 eMusic.com 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.