One thing the Bach Collegium Japan’s performance of J. S. Bach’s St John Passion brought to mind was that the taste for staging Bach Passions (not to mention the Requiems by Verdi and Britten) seems to have receded, thank heavens. The aim was to make these Christian blockbusters more accessible, more ‘now’, but as the stagings careered towards emotional, empathising overload, the works themselves were diminished, even demeaned, as forcing the explicit upon what is implicit always does – a case of the way to Hell being paved with good intentions.
Over the three decades since he founded the Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki has become a much-admired Bach guide with his un-selfconscious, beautifully considered period performances, even if there is occasionally an element of inscrutable self-effacement. This, however, did not register in his intensely dramatic direction of the St John Passion that gripped from the start with a barely contained violence and volatility. He and his performers embraced the hierarchy of characters, soloists, chorus and orchestra in a way that instantly refreshed Bach’s precisely observed layering of wonder, meditation, dialogue and reportage. There was abundant sentiment, but not a shred of sentimentality.
The pressure Suzuki imposed on the opening chorus stated unequivocally the Passion’s temporal tragedy, a framework constantly stretched by the many Lutheran chorales. These can sometimes seem to step back from the unfolding story, but here they powerfully sharpened the sequence, and the twenty-strong chorus were generous in volume, clarity and contrapuntal bite – objective one moment, then fatally involved as the mob shouts for the release of Barabbas or ‘Crucify him’, then retreating to an otherworldly sound for the wonderful ‘Wohin?’ chorus. Christian Immler made it almost too easy to grasp Jesus’ divine humanity, and the dread in his arioso ‘Betrachte meine Seele’ was very much part of Suzuki’s hands-on immediacy. The American tenor Zachary Wilder was at his best in his ‘Erwäge’ aria, although his lower range needed more. The French countertenor Damien Guillon, rather underpowered to begin with, rallied with an eloquent ‘Es ist vollbracht’, made even more so by Rainer Zipperling’s shadowy viola da gamba obbligato. The Czech soprano Hana Blažiková made a disarmingly pure, beautifully produced sound with a narrow band of feeling. The chorus bass Yusuke Watanabe briefly stole the show as Peter and Pilate – he was hugely to the point in Pilate’s courtroom dialogue with Jesus, a passage full of dramatic insight.
The tenor James Gilchrist confirmed once again the astonishing breadth and imagination of his Evangelist in a performance that was at one with Suzuki’s supercharged overview. He shaped the role’s vocal snakes and ladders without a hint of self-indulgence, holding back the full melismatic distress of Peter’s weeping at his betrayal and thus intensifying it immeasurably. He also sounded very much part of Suzuki’s profound understanding of Bach’s musical imagery, which his orchestra played magnificently – the grinding swell of the ominous rhythms of the opening, the character of the many obbligatos accompanying the arias, the sheer variety and dramatic implications of the woodwind playing, including a sonorous contribution from the contrabassoon. Spiritually, dramatically, musically, this performance of the St John Passion delivered on all fronts.