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Recordings & Discussions of Other Vocal Works: Main Page | Motets BWV 225-231 | Mass in B minor BWV 232 | Missae Breves & Sanctus BWV 233-242 | Magnificat BWV 243 | Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 | Johannes-Passion BWV 245 | Lukas-Passion BWV 246 | Markus-Passion BWV 247 | Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248 | Oster-Oratorium BWV 249 | Chorales BWV 250-438 | Geistliche Lieder BWV 439-507 | AMN BWV 508-523 | Quodlibet BWV 524 | Aria BWV 1127

Matthäus-Passion BWV 244
Conducted by Masaaki Suzuki

V-3

J.S. Bach: Matthaüs Passion (St. Matthew Passion), BWV 244

 

Matthäus-Passion BWV 244

Masaaki Suzuki

Bach Collegium Japan

Tenor [Evangelist]: Gerd Türk; Bass [Jesus]: Peter Kooy; Soprano: Nancy Argenta; Counter-tenor: Robin Blaze; Tenor [Testis 2]: Makoto Sakurada; Bass [Judas, Petrus, Pilatus, Pontifex]: Chiyuki Urano; Soprano [Ancilla 1, Uxor Pilati]: Midori Suzuki; Soprano [Ancilla 2]: Yoshie Hida; Alto [Testis 1]: Kirsten Sollek-Avella; Bass [Pontifex 1]: Jun Hagiwara; Bass [Pontifex 2]: Tetsuya Odagawa

BIS

Mar 1999

3-CD / TT: 163:52

Recorded at the Kobe Shoin Women's University Chapel, Japan.
See: Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 - conducted by Masaaki Suzuki
Buy this album at: Amazon.com | Amazon.com [Excerpts]

Suzuki's St. Matthew Passion

Aya Itoy wrote (April 22, 1999):
(To Ryan Michero) As a Japanese living in Tokyo who admires Bach - I feel compelled to reply to your posting re Suzuki's St Matthew Passion.

However, for the two list members that I've already written to about this - I'm going to have to repeat what I told you, so you may want to skip reading the following!

Suzuki and BCJ toured around Japan with SMP for several weeks this spring. I was sure they were recording it, too, because they wouldn't keep these wonderful soloists in Japan for such a long time otherwise. I've been told the CD will be released in October.

Their performance in Tokyo on Good Friday at a big concert hall had completely sold out. I had chosen to go on a different date, as this was performed in a smaller hall (600 seats) with better acoustics, though it was farther away from the center of Tokyo.

We heard the same soloists as the BIS release mentioned on their HP. Türk was a magnificent Evangelist, I truly admired the way he 'talked'to the audience and told the story. All Kooy, Argenta, and Blaze sang beautifully. Among the musicians, violinist
Ryo Terakado was awesome.

The concert, was very moving. I tried very hard to hold tears (because I was wearing mascara), but after Petrus denied Jesus - the way the Evangelist told the story, how he expressed the words "cried bitterly", and "Erbarme Dich" (Blaze, Terakado) - I couldn't help it - tears came down on my cheeks - it was automatic reaction. We all felt our own 'Petrus' inside and cried.

I only slightly wondered about the tempi. For instance, the very beautiful Jesus' arioso when he tells his disciples to drink his blood and he won't drink till the day within his father's kingdom - it was sung jet speed, it was over before I could even blink.

Robin Blaze is a young (late 20's) British C/T, who debuted with BCJ last year, I believe he's sung for some of their cantata CD's. He is very likable - tall (at the SMP concert he had to have two chairs stuck up to sit on), blond, blue eyes - and sings just as he looks - very clean. Got gorgeous voice. I don't think you'll be too disappointed. He'll compare well with Mera.

To give you a little information from his home country, Mera sang for a very popular animation movie several years ago, which made him an instant star. Since the break, he's been 'everywhere', I tend to think this has something to do with his singing less with BCJ now. But I do hope he'll sing for BCJ again soon.

BCJ regularly performs Bach works in Japan, which I should be very grateful for. And yes, I am certain the SMP CD will be worth putting in an advance order for.

 

SMP by Masaaki Suzuki

Samuel Frederick wrote (December 16, 1999):
Suzuki's new recording of the Matthew Passion should have been released over a week ago. Has anyone (perhaps those closer to Sweden) seen this show up yet. I'd like to know how successful it is (or not).

Simon Crouch wrote (December 17, 1999):
Though it's been released in Sweden, it's only going to be released in the UK in February, I believe. Michael Marissen got his copy direct from Suzuki and posted a very favorable review on alt.music.j-s-bach (preferring it to Herreweghe's recent release).

Patrik Enander wrote (December 17, 1999):
(To Samuel Frederick) Why don't you send a mail to info@bis.se

Piotr Stanislawski wrote (January 2, 2000):
Does anyone know who are the soloists in Suzuki's SMP recording and what is the number of the CD? If someone has already heard this new recording I would be grateful for any comment.

Luis Villalba wrote (January 2, 2000):
(To Piotr Stanislawski) I've only seen Fanfare's back cover, which has Argenta, Türk, Sakurada, Blaze, Urano, and Kooij. Catalog BIS 1000/1002 (3 CD's).

I also look forward to comments from any pioneering listener.

Ryan Michero wrote (February 2, 2000):
I've been impatiently waiting for Masaaki Suzuki's recording of the St. Matthew Passion to arrive here in the states. Apparently it reached Sweden and Japan first, and I was really eager to get my hands on it. Finally, about a week ago, it arrived in the mail, and I listened to it this past weekend.

What can I say except that this is a beautiful, dramatic, deeply moving recording of arguably Bach's greatest vocal work? The choral singing is outstanding, the vocal soloists perform wonderfully, and the orchestra is simply ravishing. Gerd Türk gives another thrilling performance as the Evangelist, and I couldn't ask for a better Jesus than Peter Kooy. Nancy Argenta's voice is fresh and lovely as always, Makoto Sakurada sounds great, and Robin Blaze is particularly impressive in the important alto solos, filling Yoshikazu Mera's shoes nicely. Even Chiyuki Urano, who hasn't impressed me too much in the past, surpasses himself with a stylish and moving performance.

I had very high expectations for this set, and they were surpassed. Is it my favourite recording and top recommendation for this work? In spite of tough competition from Herreweghe, Gardiner, Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, and Koopman, I would have to say yes.

I am in the midst of some comparative listening of different recordings of the St. Matthew, and I'll get back to everyone with a more in-depth review later. In the meantime, if you've been thinking of picking up the Suzuki, I wouldn't hesitate.

 

Suzuki Tackles the Big One

Donald Satz wrote (December 29, 1999):
Suzuki's recording of Bach's most imposing choral work, the St. Matthew Passion, is scheduled for U.S. release on or about 18 January. Unfortunately, hearing that just made me wonder what's happened to his recording of the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248). As far as I can tell, it has not been released in the U.S. Does anyone have the scoop on what's going on with the distribution?

 

Suzuki’s St. Matthew Passion

Donald Satz wrote (January 25, 2000):
Close on the heels of Herreweghe's 2nd recording of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, Suzuki's from BIS is now available. Suzuki has been recording the Bach cantatas and other Bach sacred choral works with great success. I have consistently found Suzuki to be a superb interpreter of Bach's music; instrumental/orchestral contributions are as good as it gets, and the choral work is particularly outstanding (witness the St. John Passion). My only problem with Suzuki's Bach has been the sopranos he utilizes; I find them to have uniformly weak voices without much beauty of tone.

Suzuki's St. Matthew Passion follows the path his previous Bach recordings: outstanding sound, instrumentation and choral work, with just an adequate soprano soloist. This time, it's Nancy Argenta. I don't want to be hard on her. She has one of those "white" voices which I can easily be drawn to, but Argenta is not Emma Kirby - not even close. Argenta's voice is not strong and its allure is slight. Of course, there's much more to the St. Matthew Passion than the soprano soloist, so I have still greatly enjoyed this recording.

Suzuki compares well with the 2nd Herreweghe recording excepting for the soprano. On that basis, I recommend Herreweghe as a first choice with Suzuki close behind; both are better than the Gardiner St. Matthew Passion which is a little short on drama.

Just a few words about the work itself. Although Bach's B minor Mass is often referred to as the crowining musical achievement of Western Civilization, I prefer the St. Matthew Passion - more drama and superior choral passages. The opening of Part 1 sets the tone for the work - an inexorable march of all of humanity. I'd also like to mention a tenor aria in Part 1 which suddenly breaks loose into a choral passage which sounds as if the entire body of universal knowledge and power is pontificating from on high. Those are just two of the masterful passages from the Passion which both Herreweghe and Suzuki get just right.

Don's Conclusion: A great St. Matthew Passion with only one vocal flaw which is not debilitating. Close to a must-buy.

Andrys Basten wrote (January 29, 2000):
< Don Satz wrote: an adequate soprano soloist. This time, it's Nancy Argenta. I don't want to be hard on her. She has one of those "white" voices which I can easily >be drawn to, but Argenta is not Emma Kirby - not even close. Argenta's voice is not strong and its allure is slight. >
Some of her style here may have been at the request of the conductor. I've heard her here in San Francisco and she tends to use a rounder tone than Kirkby and with more vibrato. I really enjoy later-Kirkby, but found Argenta very good and with a basically more operatic style than Kirkby's while still very flexible. So, I suspect there's been an adjustment made to fit into Suzuki's usual soprano-soloist style.

< Just a few words about the work itself. Although Bach's B minor Mass is often referred to as the crowining musical achievement of Western Civilization, I prefer the St. Matthew Passion - more drama and superior choral passages. >
They're certainly different. Glad I don't have to make a choice but if I did it's the Bach B Minor that I'd have with me -- maybe because the choral segments are more varied (and more interesting to us choral singers) and the solos a tad more complex - whatever, I found I could listen to the B minor far longer though both are magnificent.

The American Bach Soloists did the B Minor here so effectively that instead of a tired audience as you usually see at the end of this piece (and that I saw when Shaw was here a few years go) the place erupted into what sounded like a game- ending touchdown response, with foot stomping and whistling. It was the most stunning performance I'd ever heard of a non-staged long work like that. When they did the St. Matthew Passion, same group, somehow it didn't hold together as well for us, at least for sitting quietly through it...

< The opening of Part 1 sets the tone for the work - an inexorable march of all of humanity. >
I'd like to add something here because that opening IS so stirring and the Klemperer (which I have) emphasizes the heavy lament, with a kind of hindsight -- the listeners are aware of what happens and it's summarized in advance for us in the tempo and weight of that prelude. I keep this LP set because it does still stir me.

In the period-performance renditions, the tempo for the opening tends to be faster, causing some listeners reared on Klemperer to be quite put out by its seeming shallowness and lack of a feeling of emotional loss. But in discussions elsewhere some interesting points have been made and I'll just post here my own summary of the defense for the newer (to us) approach and welcome any others' views of course.

The opening, when we read the text carefully, has more to do with the marketplace than it does a funeral. It's not so much 'dance' - as some complain - (though baroque music just tends to be based on dance) but the pulse of life, and here we have people who are seeing Jesus marched through the streets but who have no idea why, nor who he is. What? Who? is the continuing voiced question. The movement of daily life is the focus, interrupted by these interjections, as people going about their normal day wonder what is going on.

In other words, the opening-scene/play is performed as if we are back there, in the present, living/re-living that Passion-story, rather than either remembering the ending of that story or even noting it in advance.

So, rather than the lament we're used to hearing from Klemperer (which I like), we're hearing something more like a play -- the movement of notes now based on the text of Bach's composition. I think this is certainly a valid interpretation of the music, even if what we're used to is valid also, in another way - the Klemperer a lamentation based on what we know is ahead even if the people exclaiming Who? What? have no idea and at this point in the re-enacted Passion don't care that much.

I wanted to add that my own favorite type of performance of the opening To the St. Matthew would combine both approaches, as both are found in the music. All in minor, and in one of the most beautiful series of progressions we'll ever hear, we're told that behind the hurly burly and the bzzz about who that is and what is happening, is a universal horror story of what man does to its best and how easily we do it.

So, I guess what I prefer is a somewhat less leaden tempo, using instead the tension of the lines but not short-shrifting the underlying sorrow of the storyteller, while we also have to hear the sounds of ordinary life, of innocence and curiosity, of people not yet touched by what is happening

Donald Satz wrote (January 31, 2000):
< Andrys Basten wrote of Nancy Argenta's performance in Suzuki's SMP: Some of her style here may have been at the request of the conductor. I've heard her here in San Francisco and she tends to use a rounder tone than Kirby and with more vibrato. I really enjoy later-Kirby, but found Argenta very good and with a basically more operatic style than Kirby's while still very flexible. So, I suspect there's been an adjustment made to fit into Suzuki's usual soprano-soloist style. >
With the comments of Andrys in mind, I listened to a few other recordings featuring Argenta, even going back as far as the Gardiner/Händel Solomon recorded in 1984. Although her voice wasn't exactly the same in each recording, I did find the strength of the voice and tonal quality similar throughout. Likes and dislikes of voices are very personal; I just don't find that Argenta adds to my enjoyment of a work, but she she doesn't detract either.

Donald Satz wrote (February 3, 2000):
Ryan related how much he is enjoying Suzuki's new recording. Although I'm not as enthusiastic as Ryan concerning Nancy Argenta, in every other respect I share Ryan's opinion.

Suzuki's Bach cantata Vol.11 arrived at my home yesterday, and that's a great recording also. I'm coming around to the opinion that Suzuki is the best interpreter of Bach sacred choral works on period instruments. I'm very glad that BIS has given Suzuki the opportunity to provide us with so many masterful Bach performances in outstanding sound.

Ryan Michero wrote (February 3, 2000):
Donald Satz wrote:
< Suzuki's Bach cantata volume 11 arrived at my home yesterday, and that's a great recording also. >
I agree! I wrote an enthusiastic review of it on this list a few weeks ago. I can pass it to you through private e-mail if you would like. Or if anyone else is interested, I'll re-post.

< I'm coming around to the opinion that Suzuki is the best interpreter of Bach sacred choral works on period instruments. >
Indeed! I agree again. Suzuki is certainly a Bach specialist his Bach recordings have been wonderful, but his other recordings of Handel, Buxtehude, and Schütz show great potential in other repertoire as well.

You don't like Argenta though? I'll admit her vibrato is a bit wide for Bach, but it's not a constant, strained vibrato and it isn't used to cover vocal insecurities. I think overall, she's a stylish, expressive singer with a fine tone. Your opinion?

Were you as impressed with the other singers as I was? I didn't think Blaze could measure up to Mera at first, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

Samuel Frederick wrote (February 4, 2000):
< You don't like Argenta though? I'll admit her vibrato is a bit wide for Bach, but it's not a constant, strained vibrato and it isn't used to cover vocal insecurities. I think overall, she's a stylish, expressive singer with a fine tone. Your opinion? >
I also finally got the recording and am very impressed, with the notable exception of Argenta. In fact, I think "Ich will Dir mein Herze schenken" is almost ruined by her singing. The piece sits too low for her, it seems, and she just wobbles her way through it without any kind of control or precision. Too bad.

But that's only a first impression. I will be re-listening to it again this weekend and will share my thoughts thereafter. All the other singers sound terrific though.

Donald Satz wrote (February 4, 2000):
Ryan asked:
< You don't like Argenta though? I'll admit her vibrato is a bit wide for Bach, but it's not a constant, strained vibrato and it isn't used to cover vocal insecurities. I think, overall, she's a stylish, expressive singer with a fine tone. Your opinion? >
I don't have a problem with Argenta's vibrato; I just don't find her voice very attractive or expressive. Sibylla Rubens for Herreweghe's St. Matthew Passion is more to my liking.

< Were you as impressed with the other singers as I was? >
Yes. The others were excellent, and Robin Blaze did compare well to Mera.

For whatever reason, I tend to be more "picky" with the soprano and mezzo-soprano roles than the other roles.

Johan van Veen wrote (March 14, 2000):
Last week there has been a short discussion on recordings of Bach's St Matthew Passion. Matthew Westphal gave his opinion on the recent recording by the Bach Collegium Japan. In case you haven't read his review, look at: Amazon.com

In some respects I can agree with his view, but in general I am somewhat more negative. Matthew observed that Suzuki's recording is some sort of meditation about the passion, and I think he is right. I personally prefer a more dramatic approach, but one could certainly argue for a more introverted kind of performance. In fact, one of my favorite recordings follows the same path: Leonhardt's recording with the Tölzer Knabenchor and La Petite Bande (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi - RD 77848). In fact, he takes more time for the whole SMP than Suzuki. But, of course, tempo isn't the main thing. So let me sum up my impressions. For reasons of fairness, I will compare Suzuki now and then with Leonhardt, and not with a recording with a more dramatic approach.

First some general points. I can understand that a conductor uses only 4 soloists for the arias in both choirs, but is it unrealistic to expect 8 of them in a recording? Leonhardt has the luxury of having two singers in the roles of the Evangelist and Jesus, and 8 more for the other roles and the arias. (It is a shame that he has made two unhappy choices: David Cordier and especially Peter Lika.) I am not very happy with the sound of the recording. Both choirs contain 15 singers (4/3/4/4), but they sound larger. Maybe that is a matter of the acoustics. The choral sound is not as crisp and clear, as one would expect. On the whole there is a little too much reverberation to my taste. The 'soprano in ripieno'-part is sung by - well, that is a little confusing. The list of the performers says: Shizuoka Children's Choir, but in the text of the passion the English text says: Chorale (Children's Choir), the German text: Choral (Knabenchor). The names of the children are given, but since I don't know the difference between boys' and girls' names in Japanese I just can't tell what is correct. On the basis of the sound I would guess: boys. In fact, their sound reminds me of the Holland Boys Choir, which some of you may know from the Brilliant Classics recordings of Bach's cantatas. One of my problems with this recording - and in fact with many recordings of baroque vocal music - is the interpretation of the recitatives. More often than not they are sung as they have been written down by the composer. According to the performance habits of the baroque that is not what composers had in mind. The interpretation should follow the rhythm of the text rather than the rhythm of the music. That means that the length of notes can be reduced or extended, in accordance with the importance of the words or syllables. Recitatives should be 'spoken' rather than sung. Often the tempo in the recitatives is too slow. That is true for both Leonhardt and Suzuki. I never liked Kurt Equiluz' voice as such, but he certainly knew how to sing a recitative.

What about the interpreters?

I agree with Matthew about Nancy Argenta. She is a major disappointment. Her voice sounds very unpleasant, somewhat shrill. The soprano arias have all a bittersweet character, they are about love, gratitude and devotion - and Nancy Argenta fails to communicate that. The boys Leonhardt uses do a lot better. The alto arias have a different character. They reflect pain and deep sorrow. Robin Blaze just doesn't have the range of colors in his voice to bring that across. His voice lacks dramatic power to give way to the 'exclamatio'-character of the arias. (His pronunciation isn't perfect too.) I know that many people loathe René Jacobs, but it is in this kind of pieces where he shows his strength. I have never heard a more heart-broken interpretation of 'Buss und Reu' than from him in Leonhardt's recording. Makoto Sakurada doesn't have a voice many will immediately fall for. It has a certain harshness and sharpness. In that respect he reminds me a little of Nigel Rogers - although he sounds differently. His articulation is excellent, in particular in the recitativo accompagnato 'O Schmerz'. In his second recitative and aria he is far less convincing. The bass Chiyuki Urano is a problem. He also sings the roles of Judas, St Peter, Pilate and the High Priest. His performance of the recitatives is too stiff and inflexible, and therefore anything but natural. It seems that singing the German text at a certain speed is too difficult for him. During the recording he is improving in the performance of the arias, but it doesn't move me at all. The roles of the Evangelist and of Jesus are very well sung by Gerd Türk and Peter Kooy respectively. There are some very moving moments. They both have the right voices, and give the text every attention it needs. The orchestra is good, but not excellent. It lacks some drama and also some subtlety where it is needed. When I listen to La Petite Bande, with such first class players like Sigiswald Kuijken (violin), Wieland Kuijken (viola da gamba), Barthold Kuijken (flute) and Paul Dombrecht and Marcel Ponseele (oboes), I admire how they contribute to the drama. They illustrate the text much more than the Bach Collegium. That brings me to one of my main complaints: the lack of a really good and crisp articulation. It is very striking how the choirs of Suzuki and Leonhardt sing the choruses and chorales. The Tölzer Knabenchor articulates very sharply, the main words are stressed, and every part of the text gets a full emotional weight, whereas Suzuki's choir sounds rather pale and neutral. In Leonhardts recording the chorales are gripping, because of the emotional interpretation of the text. Suzuki seems to take them as moments of rest and reflection, rather than as emotional reaction of the faithful. Some time ago someone (I think iwas Sybrand Bakker) wrote that he judges a performance of the SMP by the interpretation of the chorus 'Sind Blitze, sind Donner'. A comparison between Leonhardt and Suzuki is very interesting. Suzuki takes a faster tempo. But he starts in full speed and full power, which makes it impossible to create a strong climax. That is where Leonhardt shows his strength: he takes a slower tempo, and the first bars sound almost subdued - I think that is appropriate on the basis of the text (Have lightnings and thunders disappeared in the clouds?) But after that he directs the choir and orchestra to a highly emotional eruption, with very sharp and biting accents. It has a very strong dramatic impact, which I haven't experienced in Suzuki's recording.

The problem I have with Suzuki's recording is not the lack of drama or its introverted character, but a general blandness. Apart from some moments where both the Evangelist and the character of Jesus are involved, it never touches me. I have tried to formulate the reasons for that. Is my verdict too harsh? I am looking forward to other listeners' comments.

Donald Satz wrote (March 15, 2000):
I think Suzuki's SMP is on as high a level as Herreweghe's two recordings except for the singing of Nancy Argenta. Suzuki doesn't tend to select sopranos I like very much, but Argenta's the worst yet. Her voice was better in the 1980's (Gardiner's B minor Mass), but she's always, to my taste, been low on expressiveness.

Otherwise, I greatly enjoy the Suzuki version. He has the idiom in his blood, and I thought he projected the drama of the SMP just fine. The orchestra is excellent and the recorded sound superb.

Matthew Westphal wrote (March 15, 2000):
[To Donald Satz, regarding Nancy Argenta] I've been listening to Volume 2 of the Purcell Quartet "Plus" Bach 'Lutheran' (i.e., short) Masses on Chandos, which uses one singer per part, those singers being, in this case, Nancy Argenta, Michael Chance, Mark Padmore and Peter Harvey. I'll post more extended comments later, but for what it's worth, Argenta doesn't sound quite as shaky there as she does on the Suzuki SMP. (Maybe it was jet lag?) Michael Chance's voice, on the other hand, sounds like it has deteriorated quite a bit. Both Argenta and Chance were at their peak in the 1980's, so maybe we shouldn't be too surprised. (Harvey and especially Padmore are in excellent form.)

Luis Villalba wrote (March 15, 2000):
I agree with Don.

I personally believe that Suzuki sounds more natural, no less intense, than the other conductors.

I admire Leonhardt very much, but his SMP I find truly bland, like his Well Tempered Clavier.

But of course, "de gustibus..." (and, dare I say, national affinities...)

Johan van Veen wrote (March 15, 2000):
[To Luis Villalba] I can assure you that my preferences have nothing to do with national affinities. I don't have any national feelings at all. But, since so many figures in the baroque music scene are Dutch, it is almost inevitable that I like some of them... But Ton Koopman is Dutch, and on the whole I don't like what he is doing with Bach. His recordings of Bach's organ works - in particular the chorales - is pretty awful. Bob van Asperen's recording on Handel's organ concertos is ugly. And the SMP by the Netherlands Bach Society isn't very good either. Even Leonhardt, whom I generally admire, has made some recordings I am not very fond of, like some Odes by Purcell, or some of the secular cantatas by Bach. I can assure you that my judgement is strictly based on musical considerations. And that personal taste plays a role is inevitable.

Luis Villalba wrote (March 15, 2000):
(To Johan van Veen) Mea culpa and apologies. Please enjoy your Leonhardt.

Ryan Michero wrote (March 15, 2000):
Well, what can I say, except that I disagree with just about everything Johan had to say about this recording? Suzuki gives a very valid, effective, and dramatic interpretation, and I think Johan's preference for Leonhardt's version colors his negative comments. Perhaps I myself am a little overzealous in my endorsement of Suzuki's Bach recordings, but I think Johan is way too harsh on this SMP. Here's an avowed Suzuki-lover's take on the points mentioned in Johan's post:

Johan van Veen wrote:
< First some general points. I can understand that a conductor uses only 4 soloists for the arias in both choirs, but is it unrealistic to expect 8 of them in a recording? Leonhardt has the luxury of having two singers in the roles of the Evangelist and Jesus, and 8 more for the other roles and the arias. (It is a shame that he has made two unhappy choices: David Cordier and especially Peter Lika.) >
The use of only a few soloists to perform this work is in accordance with Suzuki's beliefs about performance practice in Bach's day. His idea in the light of the "one-per-part" controversy is that since Bach wrote for so few soloists, it makes sense to have the soloists sing in the choir and to sing multiple roles since this is probably what Bach did. You may think he is wrong, and certainly he is inconsistent about "enforcing" this rule (for instance, the main soloists here do not sing in the choir), but that's his reasoning. In the light of this preference, he is actually a bit luxurious in his casting, as his Jesus and Evangelist don't sing in the arias!

I admit to finding this something of a strange if valid solution to performing this work. However, I think it can really pay off and teach us new things. The prime example: Bass Chiyuki Urano sings every major bass part (Pilate, Petrus, the High Priest, and Judas as well as the recitatives/arias for bass!). In the course of the work he develops a strong personality through his singing of the parts of the "flawed" characters and through the contrast between the heavenly voice of Kooij and his own much more earthy and rough voice. He becomes the human bass voice of the work, the voice of the flawed sinner. And thus, how intensely moving it is to hear him sing "Mache dich" at the end of the piece VERY BEAUTIFULLY! I'll admit Urano is a weak selling point of Suzuki's set, but he surpasses himself in his final aria, mirroring (unintentionally?) the transfiguration of the human spirit which is making itself clean in order to bury Jesus. I was worried that Urano couldn't handle "Mache dich", but I nearly sobbed when I heard it. It's really quite unexpectedly affecting in the context of Urano's singing in this recording.

Probably Suzuki never intended nor even thought of this effect, but it happens simply because of the way he chooses to assign singers.

< I am not very happy with the sound of the recording. Both choirs contain 15 singers (4/3/4/4), but they sound larger. Maybe that is a matter of the acoustics. The choral sound is not as crisp and clear, as one would expect. On the whole there is a little too much reverberation to my taste. >
The venue Suzuki uses (the Shoin Women's Chapel in Kobe, I believe) has a lot of reverberation. The way the microphones are set up is, I think, great for the acoustic: It captures a bit of the atmosphere while still retaining clarity and detail. But the choir, further back from the microphones, is more blurred by the rich acoustic. It still has tremendous bite and presence, though, and overall I don't think the acoustic is much of a drawback. But really, do you think Leonhardt's choir is really that much clearer?

< One of my problems with this recording - and in fact with many recordings of baroque vocal music - is the interpretation of the recitatives... Recitatives should be 'spoken' rather than sung. Often the tempo in the recitatives is too slow. That is true for both Leonhardt and Suzuki. I never liked Kurt Equiluz' voice as such, but he certainly knew how to sing a recitative. >
I heard an interview with Gerd Türk where he explained his technique for preparing to sing a recitative. First he reads the text aloud, fixing in his mind the rhythm of the words alone. Then he sings the melody of the recitative without the words, and finally he combines the two with an ear for the melody but basically following the rhythm of the text. think Türk, more than just about any tenor (even Equiluz), has a "speaking" style of recitative.

He also said in that interview, though, that he slowed down the rhythms of the recitative to compensate for the acoustic. This may account for your displeasure, but I only think it adds to the amount of nuance and color he can bring to the music.

< What about the interpreters? I agree with Matthew about Nancy Argenta. She is a major disappointment. Her voice sounds very unpleasant, somewhat shrill. The soprano arias have all a bittersweet character, they are about love, gratitude and devotion - and Nancy Argenta fails to communicate that. The boys Leonhardt uses do a lot better. >
A major disappointment? Unpleasant and shrill? I strongly disagree, though I concede that her voice is not as fresh and light as it was in the 80's. Like Matthew, I think she is an unfailingly musical singer, and she does fine by me in Suzuki's SMP. It's hard for me to compare her with Leonhardt's boys. They give a very different kind of feel to the arias, very innocent and weak. You may prefer that, but I'll stick to Argenta. I also prefer Argenta to the quasi-operatic Sibylla Rubens in Herreweghe II. But to each his own.

< Robin Blaze just doesn't have the range of colors in his voice to bring that across. His voice lacks dramatic power to give way to the 'exclamatio'-character of the arias. (His pronunciation isn't perfect too.) I know that many people loathe René Jacobs, but it is in this kind of pieces where he shows his strength. >
Here is where I disagree most strongly. I think Blaze is really terrific here. He has a great range--larger than most countertenors--and is a highlight of this recording. I like Jacobs in Leonhardt's SMP (though I despise his voice in many other performances), but I far prefer Blaze.

< Makoto Sakurada doesn't have a voice many will immediately fall for. It has a certain harshness and sharpness. In that respect he reminds me a little of Nigel Rogers - although he sounds differently. His articulation is excellent, in particular in the recitativo accompagnato 'O Schmerz'. In his second recitative and aria he is far less convincing. >
Well, I think Sakurada is one of Suzuki's great finds--a fine, dramatic, musical tenor. No, he doesn't have a beautiful, mellifluous voice, but his voice works splendidly in certain contexts, like in this SMP.

< The bass Chiyuki Urano is a problem. He also sings the roles of Judas, St Peter, Pilate and the High Priest. >
See above for my thoughts about Urano and his singing of many different roles.

< The role of the Evangelist and of Jesus are very well sung by Gerd Türk and Peter Kooy respectively. There are some very moving moments. The both have the right voices, and give the text every attention it needs. >
Agreed!

< The orchestra is good, but not excellent. It lacks some drama and also some subtlety where it is needed. When I listen to La Petite Bande, with such first class players like Sigiswald Kuijken (violin), Wieland Kuijken (viola da gamba), Barthold Kuijken (flute) and Paul Dombrecht and Marcel Ponseele (oboes), I admire how they contribute to the drama. They illustrate the text much more than the Bach Collegium. >
I think the Bach Collegium Orchestra is wonderful. It's hard to compete with the HIP luminaries you mention. BUT Ryo Terakado, Alfredo Bernardini, and Hidemi Suzuki? These are hardly second-class players. Terakado's playing of the violin part of "Erbarme dich" is the most fluent, beautiful, and moving I've ever heard, surpassing even Kuijken in my estimation.

It's funny that you say that they don't illustrate the text, because that doesn't make coincide with what I know about the BCJ. They are very personally involved with Suzuki's interpretation. Whereas Suzuki at first (before they started recording) had to motivate and interest them in the material, they now demand to read the text of each piece before they play it. No, Lutheranism is not an ingrained part of Japanese culture, but they are quite engaged with the intent and meaning of what they play. I hear this vividly, but I guess you do not.

< That brings me to one of my main complaints: the lack of a really good and crisp articulation. >
On the other hand, Leonhardt can be faulted for over-articulation.

< It is very striking how the choirs of Suzuki and Leonhardt sing the choruses and chorales. The Tölzer Knabenchor articulates very sharply, the main words are stressed, and every part of the text gets a full emotional weight, whereas Suzuki's choir sounds rather pale and neutral. In Leonhardt's recording the chorales are gripping, because of the emotional interpretation of the text. Suzuki seems to take them as moments of rest and reflection, rather than as emotional reaction of the faithful. >
Suzuki's choir does not sound "pale and neutral" to me. Also, it just seems like an aspect of Suzuki's interpretation that the chorales are more like moments of rest and reflection. He avoids over-emotional dramatizing of the chorale texts, using them as more iconic representations of certain feelings than as a literal part of the drama. This is a valid interpretation. In this light, Leonhardt's chorales can seem mannered.

< Some time ago someone (I think it was Sybrand Bakker) wrote that he judges a performance of the SMP by the interpretation of the chorus 'Sind Blitze, sind Donner'. A comparison between Leonhardt and Suzuki is very interesting. Suzuki takes a faster tempo. But he starts in full speed and full power, which makes it impossible to create a strong climax. That is where Leonhardt shows his strength: he takes a slower tempo, and the first bars sound almost subdued - I think that is appropriate on the basis of the text (Have lightnings and thunders disappeared in the clouds?) But after that he directs the choir and orchestra to a highly emotional eruption, with very sharp and biting accents. It has a very strong dramatic impact, which I haven't experienced in Suzuki's recording. >
I find Suzuki's version of this chorus ten times more exciting and effective than Leonhardt's (actually, I think Herreweghe II is even better). With Suzuki, the tension is palpable but repressed throughout "So is mein Jesus nun gafangen", and it explodes in "Sind Blitze, sind Donner". This fits with the baroque idea of terraced dynamics and Bach's obvious sharp contrast between the full, ferocious chorus and the quiet, chamber-like duet. But Suzuki also builds up the intensity even more throughout the chorus, with the pause between sections very dramatic and the final chord explosive. He also transitions better to the next recitative than Leonhardt. Very dramatic!

< The problem I have with Suzuki's recording is not the lack of drama or its introverted character, but a general blandness. Apart from some moments where both the Evangelist and the character of Jesus are involved, it never touches me. I have tried to formulate the reasons for that. Is my verdict too harsh? I am looking forward to other listeners' comments. >
I know I am predisposed to like Suzuki's recording as I have followed his cantata series almost from the beginning and I have found myself agreeing with most of the performing decisions he has made and enjoying his recordings immensely. For me, Suzuki has enlivened this passion the way no other performer has before. For you, he has not.

"De gustibus non est disputandum", I guess, but I will not accept that Suzuki's interpretation is invalid, bland, or uninspired. You just don't respond to his brand of Bach, which is fine.

Thanks for starting this healthy discussion--happy listening!

 

EMRecordings Suzuki's SMP

Donald Satz wrote (March 16, 2000):
Johan van Veen wrote:
< It puzzles me why I never can find a totally convincing recording of the works I most love, like Bach's B-minor Mass (
BWV 232), or Händel's Messiah, or Monteverdi's Vespers. Maybe the fact that I like these works so much makes me too critical. >
Being intimately familiar with a work does tend to have that effect. In addition, with long/large-scale works, it might well be impossible to find a performancethat gets everything just right as far as a particular listener is concerned. All the more reason to have multiple versions of the works we love most.

 

Suzuki SMP

John Downes wrote (August 13, 2000):
I recently bought a copy of the Suzuki SMP at a second hand shop. At 20UKP for the 3-disk set I rate it as the best value purchase I ever made.

I haven't heard it all yet, I haven't got into part 2 yet, but it sounds gorgeous. Although some of the tempi are a little slower than I expected. The choruses are about 3 voices to the part.

I don't recall any review or comment being made about this 1999 recording which must rival the new Herreweghe set for pole position for this work. Is there an archive or these discussions? I've found the Cantatas archive of course, but not any others.

Ryan Michero wrote (August 14, 2000):
John Downes wrote:
< I don't recall any review or comment being made about this 1999 recording which must rival the new Herreweghe set for pole position for this work. >
We discussed it a bit when it first came out, though I don't think anyone has given it a full review. I personally think it is the most satisfying and beautiful SMP on the market, due to the wonderful chorus and orchestra, the fantastic soloists (especially the three most important soloists--the Evangelist Gerd Türk, Christus Peter Kooy, and alto soloist Robin Blaze), and Suzuki's sensitive and deeply moving conception of the work.

< Is there an archive or these discussions? I've found the Cantatas archive of course, but not any others. >
There is an archive for both lists on http://www.listbot.com/ [NLA]. Unfortunately, there is no way to search for a particular message--you have to flip through tons of pages reading the subject lines to find anything you want. You would think Microsoft would have the know-how to implement a simple search feature...

Johan van Veen wrote (August 14, 2000):
< John Downes wrote: I don't recall any review or comment being made about this 1999 recording which must rival the new Herreweghe set for pole position for this work. Is there an archive or these discussions? I've found the Cantatas archive of course, but not any others. >
It was discussed on this list. I have written a review, which I post again. Matthew Westphal has written a review on Amazon.com; you will find the link to his review at the beginning of my message. Ryan Michero has replied to my review, and I replied to his reply. I post both of them.

Last week there has been a short discussion on recordings of Bach's St Matthew Passion. Matthew Westphal gave his opinion on the recent recording by the Bach Collegium Japan. In case you haven't read his review, look at: Amazon.com

In some respects I can agree with his view, but in general I am somewhat more negative. Matthew observed that Suzuki's recording is some sort of meditation about the passion, and I think he is right. I personally prefer a more dramatic approach, but one could certainly argue for a more introverted kind of performance. In fact, one of my favorite recordings follows the same path: Leonhardt's recording with the Tölzer Knabenchor and La Petite Bande (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi - RD 77848). In fact, he takes more time for the whole SMP than Suzuki. But, of course, tempo isn't the main thing. So let me sum up my impressions. For reasons of fairness, I will compare Suzuki now and then with Leonhardt, and not with a recording with a more dramatic approach.

First some general points. I can understand that a conductor uses only 4 soloists for the arias in both choirs, but is it unrealistic to expect 8 of them in a recording? Leonhardt has the luxury of having two singers in the roles of the Evangelist and Jesus, and 8 more for the other roles and the arias. (It is a shame that he has made two unhappy choices: David Cordier and especially Peter Lika.) I am not very happy with the sound of the recording. Both choirs contain 15 singers (4/3/4/4), but they sound larger. Maybe that is a matter of the acoustics. The choral sound is not as crisp and clear, as one would expect. On the whole there is a little too much reverberation to my taste. The 'soprano in ripieno'-part is sung by - well, that is a little confusing. The list of the performers says: Shizuoka Children's Choir, but in the text of the passion the English text says: Chorale (Children's Choir), the German text: Choral (Knabenchor). The names of the children are given, but since I don't know the difference between boys' and girls' names in Japanese I just can't tell what is correct. On the basis of the sound I would guess: boys. In fact, their sound reminds me of the Holland Boys Choir, which some of you may know from the Brilliant Classics recordings of Bach's cantatas. One of my problems with this recording - and in fact with many recordings of baroque vocal music - is the interpretation of the recitatives. More often than not they are sung as they have been written down by the composer. According to the performance habits of the baroque that is not what composers had in mind. The interpretation should follow the rhythm of the text rather than the rhythm of the music. That means that the length of notes can be reduced or extended, in accordance with the importance of the words or syllables. Recitatives should be 'spoken' rather than sung. Often the tempo in the recitatives is too slow. That is true for both Leonhardt and Suzuki. I never liked Kurt Equiluz' voice as such, but he certainly knew how to sing a recitative.

What about the interpreters?

I agree with Matthew about Nancy Argenta. She is a major disappointment. Her voice sounds very unpleasant, somewhat shrill. The soprano arias have all a bittersweet character, they are about love, gratitude and devotion - and Nancy Argenta fails to communicate that. The boys Leonhardt uses do a lot better. The alto arias have a different character. They reflect pain and deep sorrow. Robin Blaze just doesn't have the range of colors in his voice to bring that across. His voice lacks dramatic power to give way to the 'exclamatio'-character of the arias. (His pronunciation isn't perfect too.) I know that many people loathe René Jacobs, but it is in this kind of pieces where he shows his strength. I have never heard a more heart-broken interpretation of 'Buss und Reu' than from him in Leonhardt's recording. Makoto Sakurada doesn't have a voice many will immediately fall for. It has a certain harshness and sharpness. In that respect he reminds me a little of Nigel Rogers - although he sounds differently. His articulation is excellent, in particular in the recitativo accompagnato 'O Schmerz'. In his second recitative and aria he is far less convincing. The bass Chiyuki Urano is a problem. He also sings the roles of Judas, St Peter, Pilate and the High Priest. His performance of the recitatives is too stiff and inflexible, and therefore anything but natural. It seems that singing the German text at a certain speed is too difficult for him. During the recording he is improving in the performance of the arias, but it doesn't move me at all. The role of the Evangelist and of Jesus are very well sung by Gerd Türk and Peter Kooy respectively. There are some very moving moments. The both have the right voices, and give the text every attention it needs. The orchestra is good, but not excellent. It lacks some drama and also some subtlety where it is needed. When I listen to La Petite Bande, with such first class players like Sigiswald Kuijken (violin), Wieland Kuijken (viola da gamba), Barthold Kuijken (flute) and Paul Dombrecht and Marcel Ponseele (oboes), I admire how they contribute to the drama. They illustrate the text much more than the Bach Collegium. That brings me to one of my main complaints: the lack of a really good and crisp articulation. It is very striking how the choirs of Suzuki and Leonhardt sing the choruses and chorales. The Tölzer Knabenchor articulates very sharply, the main words are stressed, anevery part of the text gets a full emotional weight, whereas Suzuki's choir sounds rather pale and neutral. In Leonhardts recording the chorales are gripping, because of the emotional interpretation of the text. Suzuki seems to take them as moments of rest and reflection, rather than as emotional reaction of the faithful. Some time ago someone (I think it was Sybrand Bakker) wrote that he judges a performance of the SMP by the interpretation of the chorus 'Sind Blitze, sind Donner'. A comparison between Leonhardt and Suzuki is very interesting. Suzuki takes a faster tempo. But he starts in full speed and full power, which makes it impossible to create a strong climax. That is where Leonhardt shows his strength: he takes a slower tempo, and the first bars sound almost subdued - I think that is appropriate on the basis of the text (Have lightnings and thunders disappeared in the clouds?) But after that he directs the choir and orchestra to a highly emotional eruption, with very sharp and biting accents. It has a very strong dramatic impact, which I haven't experienced in Suzuki's recording.

The problem I have with Suzuki's recording is not the lack of drama or its introverted character, but a general blandness. Apart from some moments where both the Evangelist and the character of Jesus are involved, it never touches me. I have tried to formulate the reasons for that. Is my verdict too harsh? I am looking forward to other listeners' comments.

Ryan Michero replied:
Well, what can I say, except that I disagree with just about everything Johan had to say about this recording? Suzuki gives a very valid, effective, and dramatic interpretation, and I think Johan's preference for Leonhardt's version colors his negative comments. Perhaps I myself am a little overzealous in my endorsement of Suzuki's Bach recordings, but I think Johan is way too harsh on this SMP. Here's an avowed Suzuki-lover's take on the points mentioned in Johan's post:

< Johan van Veen wrote: First some general points. I can understand that a conductor uses only 4 soloists for the arias in both choirs, but is it unrealistic to expect 8 of them in a recording? Leonhardt has the luxury of having two singers in the roles of the Evangelist and Jesus, and 8 more for the other roles and the arias. (It is a shame that he has made two unhappy choices: David Cordier and especially Peter Lika.) >
The use of only a few soloists to perform this work is in accordance with Suzuki's beliefs about performance practice in Bach's day. His idea in the light of the "one-per-part" controversy is that since Bach wrote for so few soloists, it makes sense to have the soloists sing in the choir and to sing multiple roles since this is probably what Bach did. You may think he is wrong, and certainly he is inconsistent about "enforcing" this rule (for instance, the main soloists here do not sing in the choir), but that's his reasoning. In the light of this preference, he is actually a bit luxurious in his casting, as his Jesus and Evangelist don't sing in the arias!

I admit to finding this something of a strange if valid solution to performing this work. However, I think it can really pay off and teach us new things. The prime example: Bass Chiyuki Urano sings every major bass part (Pilate, Petrus, the High Priest, and Judas as well as the recitatives/arias for bass!). In the course of the work he develops a strong personality through his singing of the parts of the "flawed" characters and through the contrast between the heavenly voice of Kooij and his own much more earthy and rough voice. He becomes the human bass voice of the work, the voice of the flawed sinner. And thus, how intensely moving it is to hear him sing "Mache dich" at the end of the piece VERY BEAUTIFULLY! I'll admit Urano is a weak selling point of Suzuki's set, but he surpasses himself in his final aria, mirroring (unintentionally?) the transfiguration of the human spirit which is making itself clean in order to bury Jesus. I was worried that Urano couldn't handle "Mache dich", but I nearly sobbed when I heard it. It's really quite unexpectedly affecting in the context of Urano's singing in this recording.

Probably Suzuki never intended nor even thought of this effect, but it happens simply because of the way he chooses to assign singers.

< I am not very happy with the sound of the recording. Both choirs contain 15 singers (4/3/4/4), but they sound larger. Maybe that is a matter of the acoustics. The choral sound is not as crisp and clear, as one would expect. On the whole there is a little too much reverberation to my taste. >
The venue Suzuki uses (the Shoin Women's Chapel in Kobe, I believe) has a lot of reverberation. The way the microphones are set up is, I think, great for the acoustic: It captures a bit of the atmosphere while still retaining clarity and detail. But the choir, further back from the microphones, is more blurred by the rich acoustic. It still has tremendous bite and presence, though, and overall I don't think the acoustic is much of a drawback. But really, do you think Leonhardt's choir is really that much clearer?

< One of my problems with this recording - and in fact with many recordings of baroque vocal music - is the interpretation of the recitatives.... Recitatives should be 'spoken' rather than sung. Often the tempo in the recitatives is too slow. That is true for both Leonhardt and Suzuki. I never liked Kurt Equiluz' voice as such, but he certainly knew how to sing a recitative. >
I heard an interview with Gerd Türk where he explained his technique for preparing to sing a recitative. First he reads the text aloud, fixing in his mind the rhythm of the words alone. Then he sings the melody of the recitative without the words, and finally he combines the two with an ear for the melody but basically following the rhythm of the text. I think Türk, more than just about any tenor (even Equiluz), has a "speaking" style of recitative.

He also said in that interview, though, that he slowed down the rhythms of the recitative to compensate for the acoustic. This may account for your displeasure, but I only think it adds to the amount of nuance and color he can bring to the music.

< What about the interpreters? I agree with Matthew about Nancy Argenta. She is a major disappointment. Her voice sounds very unpleasant, somewhat shrill. The soprano arias have all a bittersweet character, they are about love, gratitude and devotion - and Nancy Argenta fails to communicate that. The boys Leonhardt uses do a lot better. >
A major disappointment? Unpleasant and shrill? I strongly disagree, though I concede that her voice is not as fresh and light as it was in the 80s. Like Matthew, I think she is an unfailingly musical singer, and she does fine by me in Suzuki's SMP. It's hard for me to compare her with Leonhardt's boys. They give a very different kind of feel to the arias, very innocent and weak. You may prefer that, but I'll stick to Argenta. I also prefer Argenta to the quasi-operatic Sibylla Rubens in Herreweghe II. But to each his own.

< Robin Blaze just doesn't have the range of colors in his voice to bring that across. His voice lacks dramatic power to give way to the 'exclamatio'-character of the arias. (His pronunciation isn't perfect too.) I know that many people loathe René Jacobs, but it is in this kind of pieces where he shows his strength. >
Here is where I disagree most strongly. I think Blaze is really terrific here. He has a great range--larger than most countertenors--and is a highlight of this recording. I like Jacobs in Leonhardt's SMP (though I despise his voice in many other performances), but I far prefer Blaze.

< Makoto Sakurada doesn't have a voice many will immediately fall for. It has a certain harshness and sharpness. In that respect he reminds me a little of Nigel Rogers - although he sounds differently. His articulation is excellent, in particular in the recitativo accompagnato 'O Schmerz'. In his second recitative and aria he is far less convincing. >
Well, I think Sakurada is one of Suzuki's great finds--a fine, dramatic, musical tenor. No, he doesn't have a beautiful, melvoice, but his voice works splendidly in certain contexts, like in this SMP.

< The bass Chiyuki Urano is a problem. He also sings the roles of Judas, St Peter, Pilate and the High Priest. >
See above for my thoughts about Urano and his singing of many different roles.

< The role of the Evangelist and of Jesus are very well sung by Gerd Türk and Peter Kooy respectively. There are some very moving moments. The both have the right voices, and give the text every attention it needs. >
Agreed!

< The orchestra is good, but not excellent. It lacks some drama and also some subtlety where it is needed. When I listen to La Petite Bande, with such first class players like Sigiswald Kuijken (violin), Wieland Kuijken (viola da gamba), Barthold Kuijken (flute) and Paul Dombrecht and Marcel Ponseele (oboes), I admire how they contribute to the drama. They illustrate the text much more than the Bach Collegium. >
I think the Bach Collegium Orchestra is wonderful. It's hard to compete with the HIP luminaries you mention. BUT Ryo Terakado, Alfredo Bernardini, and Hidemi Suzuki? These are hardly second-class players. Terakado's playing of the violin part of "Erbarme dich" is the most fluent, beautiful, and moving I've ever heard, surpassing even Kuijken in my estimation.

It's funny that you say that they don't illustrate the text, because that doesn't make coincide with what I know about the BCJ. They are very personally involved with Suzuki's interpretation. Whereas Suzuki at first (before they started recording) had to motivate and interest them in the material, they now demand to read the text of each piece before they play it. No, Lutheranism is not an ingrained part of Japanese culture, but they are quite engaged with the intent and meaning of what they play. I hear this vividly, but I guess you do not.

< That brings me to one of my main complaints: the lack of a really good and crisp articulation. >
On the other hand, Leonhardt can be faulted for over-articulation.

< It is very striking how the choirs of Suzuki and Leonhardt sing the choruses and chorales. The Tölzer Knabenchor articulates very sharply, the main words are stressed, and every part of the text gets a full emotional weight, whereas Suzuki's choir sounds rather pale and neutral. In Leonhardts recording the chorales are gripping, because of the emotional interpretation of the text. Suzuki seems to take them as moments of rest and reflection, rather than as emotional reaction of the faithful. >
Suzuki's choir does not sound "pale and neutral" to me. Also, it just seems like an aspect of Suzuki's interpretation that the chorales are more like moments of rest and reflection. He avoids over-emotional dramatizing of the chorale texts, using them as more iconic representations of certain feelings than as a literal part of the drama. This is a valid interpretation. In this light, Leonhardt's chorales can seem mannered. >

< Some time ago someone (I think it was Sybrand Bakker) wrote that he judges a performance of the SMP by the interpretation of the chorus 'Sind Blitze, sind Donner'. A comparison between Leonhardt and Suzuki is very interesting. Suzuki takes a faster tempo. But he starts in full speed and full power, which makes it impossible to create a strong climax. That is where Leonhardt shows his strength: he takes a slower tempo, and the first bars sound almost subdued - I think that is appropriate on the basis of the text (Have lightnings and thunders disappeared in the clouds?) But after that he directs the choir and orchestra to a highly emotional eruption, with very sharp and biting accents. It has a very strong dramatic impact, which I haven't experienced in Suzuki's recording. >
I find Suzuki's version of this chorus ten times more exciting and effective than Leonhardt's (actually, I think Herreweghe II is even better). With Suzuki, the tension is palpable but repressed throughout "So is mein Jesus nun gafangen", and it explodes in "Sind Blitze, sind Donner". This fits with the baroque idea of terraced dynamics and Bach's obvious sharp contrast between the full, ferocious chorus and the quiet, chamber-like duet. But Suzuki also builds up the intensity even more throughout the chorus, with the pause between sections very dramatic and the final chord explosive. He also transitions better to the next recitative than Leonhardt. Very dramatic!

< The problem I have with Suzuki's recording is not the lack of drama or its introverted character, but a general blandness. Apart from some moments where both the Evangelist and the character of Jesus are involved, it never touches me. I have tried to formulate the reasons for that. Is my verdict too harsh? I am looking forward to other listeners' comments. >
I know I am predisposed to like Suzuki's recording as I have followed his cantata series almost from the beginning and I have found myself agreeing with most of the performing decisions he has made and enjoying his recordings immensely. For me, Suzuki has enlivened this passion the way no other performer has before. For you, he has not.

"De gustibus non est disputandum", I guess, but I will not accept that Suzuki's interpretation is invalid, bland, or uninspired. You just don't respond to his brand of Bach, which is fine.

Thanks for starting this healthy discussion--happy listening!

I have replied his message like this:
Thank you for your comments, Ryan. I find it always interesting that two people hear the same recording and seem to have totally different experiences. It is one of the nice things of these lists that we can discuss our experiences, not to convince each other that one of us is wrong and the other is right, but to try to understand why we have different opinions. So let me add some comments to what you write.

Ryan Michero wrote:
< Well, what can I say, except that I disagree with just > about everything Johan had to say about this recording? Suzuki gives a very valid, effective, and dramatic interpretation, and I think Johan's preference for Leonhardt's version colors his negative comments. >
Let me try to make my position somewhat clearer. I don't think I have been influenced by my preference for Leonhardt's recording. As I wrote in my review, it is my favorite version in the category of the more introverted recordings. I personally prefer a more extraverted, dramatic approach. So far I haven't heard a recording which I am totally happy with. It puzzles me why I never can find a totally convincing recording of the works I most love, like Bach's B-minor Mass, or Handel's Messiah, or Monteverdi's Vespers. Maybe the fact that I like these works so much makes me too critical. Another factor which makes me prefer Leonhardt is the Tölzer Knabenchor, first of all because I can't quite swallow the singing of female singers in pre-romantic liturgical music, secondly because I hugely admire the Tölzer Knabenchor (together with some others like the Knabenchor Hannover). It was one of the reasons I bought the whole Teldec cantata series at the end of 1998, and I started to collect the LP's when they were issued in the early 1970's. We certainly disagree on some points, but I noticed that we agree on others, but assess it differently. The things I want to hear you would probably consider 'mannerist'. I admit that I am pretty radical in my wishes: I prefer very strong contrasts in tempi, dynamics, and articulation. If you regard that as 'mannerist', so be it. I have snipped the parts I don't comment on.

Johan van Veen wrote:
<< I am not very happy with the sound of the recording. Both choirs contain 15 singers (4/3/4/4), but they sound larger. Maybe that is a matter of the acoustics. The choral sound is not as crisp and clear, as one would expect. On the whole there is a little too much reverberation to my taste. >>
Ryan Michero wrote:
< The venue Suzuki uses (the Shoin Women's Chapel in Kobe, I believe) has a lot of reverberation. The way the microphones are set up is, I think, great for the acoustic: It captures a bit of the atmosphere while still retaining clarity and detail. But the choir, further back from the microphones, is more blurred by the rich a. It still has tremendous bite and presence, though, and overall I don't think the acoustic is much of a drawback. But really, do you think Leonhardt's choir is really that much clearer? >
The acoustics is a subject, which is often underestimated in recordings. Over the years I have heard many recordings where details are literally drowned in the reverberating acoustics. It is not that bad in this recording, but it makes the choir sound larger than it is. But I admit that it is difficult to imagine how Bach's music originally sounded in Leipzig. Of course it makes a difference whether a church or hall is full of people or empty. As far as the clarity of the choirs is concerned: yes, I think Leonhardt's choir is indeed clearer, but that is not only a matter of the somewhat dryer acoustics of his recording, it is also a matter of interpretation. And that is where we disagree. (Another factor is that boys' voices are different in character, somewhat thinner and more penetrating.) >

Johan van Veen wrote:
<< One of my problems with this recording - and in fact with many recordings of baroque vocal music - is the interpretation of the recitatives... Recitatives should be 'spoken' rather than sung. Often the tempo in the recitatives is too slow. That is true for both Leonhardt and Suzuki. I never liked Kurt Equiluz' voice as such, but he certainly knew how to sing a recitative. >>
Ryan Michero wrote:
< I heard an interview with Gerd Türk where he explained his technique for preparing to sing a recitative. First he reads the text aloud, fixing in his mind the rhythm of the words alone. Then he sings the melody of the recitative without the words, and finally he combines the two with an ear for the melody but basically following the rhythm of the text. I think Türk, more than just about any tenor (even Equiluz), has a "speaking" style of recitative.
He also said in that interview, though, that he slowed down the rhythms of the recitative to compensate for the acoustic. This may account for your displeasure, but I only think it adds to the amount of nuance and color he can bring to the music. >
Like I just said, acoustics is an important issue. I can understand that the tempo is slowed down because of the acoustical circumstances, but what I have problems with (not in particular with Gerd Türk's performance, but in general) is that the difference between the really important words and syllables and the less important ones - which is reflected in the typically baroque thinking in "good" and "bad" notes - is too often underplayed. But I understand that it has to do with the approach - the way Türk and Prégardien's singing of the recitatives reflects the more introverted approach which Leonhardt and Suzuki share.

Johan van Veen wrote:
<< Robin Blaze just doesn't have the range of colors in his voice to bring that across. His voice lacks dramatic power to give way to the 'exclamatio'-character of the arias. (His pronunciation isn't perfect too.) I know that many people loathe René Jacobs, but it is in this kind of pieces where he shows his strength. >>
Ryan Michero wrote:
< Here is where I disagree most strongly. I think Blaze is really terrific here. He has a great range--larger than most countertenors--and is a highlight of this recording. I like Jacobs in Leonhardt's SMP (though I despise his voice in many other performances), but I far prefer Blaze. >
I think one of the aspects of Jacobs' singing which annoys many people is his frequent use of the 'messa di voce', but that is exactly one of the things I like, as well as his articulation. Blaze sings (as most English singers do) more legato and that's what I don't like.

Johan van Veen wrote:
<<Makoto Sakurada doesn't have a voice many will immediately fall for. It has a certain harshness and sharpness. In that respect he reminds me a little of Nigel Rogers - although he sounds differently. His articulation is excellent, in particular in the recitativo accompagnato 'O Schmerz'. In his second recitative and aria he is far less convincing. >>
Ryan Michero wrote:
< Well, I think Sakurada is one of Suzuki's great finds--a fine, dramatic, musical tenor. No, he doesn't have a beautiful, mellifluous voice, but his voice works splendidly in certain contexts, like in this SMP. >
The characterization of Sakurada's voice wasn't meant to be a criticism. I like his voice (just as I always liked Rogers'). Some weeks ago I heard him in one of the cantatas, and I liked that very much. But there are singers who have a voice almost everyone immediately likes, independent on what he is doing with it (I suppose people like Van Egmond, Prégardien and Mertens belong to that category). Others have to do a little more. But maybe you have different experiences.

Johan van Veen wrote:
<< The orchestra is good, but not excellent. It lacks some drama and also some subtlety where it is needed. When I listen to La Petite Bande, with such first class players like Sigiswald Kuijken (violin), Wieland Kuijken (viola da gamba), Barthold Kuijken (flute) and Paul Dombrecht and Marcel Ponseele (oboes), I admire how they contribute to the drama. They illustrate the text much more than the Bach Collegium. >>
Ryan Michero wrote:
< I think the Bach Collegium Orchestra is wonderful. It's hard to compete with the HIP luminaries you mention. BUT Ryo Terakado, Alfredo Bernardini, and Hidemi Suzuki? These are hardly second-class players. Terakado's playing of the violin part of "Erbarme dich" is the most fluent, beautiful, and moving I've ever heard, surpassing even Kuijken in my estimation. >
I don't think Suzuki's players are second class. But it is as with Bach's works for solo violin. I know a number of recordings, all by first class players of the baroque violin. But most of them don't touch me, and don't bring the depth of Bach's music across as I hear it.

< It's funny that you say that they don't illustrate the text, because that doesn't make coincide with what I know about the BCJ. They are very personally involved with Suzuki's interpretation. Whereas Suzuki at first (before they started recording) had to motivate and interest them in the material, they now demand to read the text of each piece before they play it. No, Lutheranism is not an ingrained part of Japanese culture, but they are quite engaged with the intent and meaning of what they play. I hear this vividly, but I guess you do not. >
There are two different points here. I am not saying that they don't know what they are doing. In fact, I would be very surprised if any player in any performance of SMP wouldn't care about the text. That is self-evident. Maybe the conductor has to explain a few things, but I can't believe that any player is only interested in his own part. The religious aspect is another thing. I can't possibly judge to what extent they understand the text nor is it my right to assess their relationship to the text. And, in case you don't know, Suzuki himself belongs to the Reformed Church in Japan, which is Calvinist in orientation, so he has certainly an understanding of and personal relationship to the content of SMP. I have no doubts about the understanding of the text. It is merely a matter of interpretation. I feel that La Petite Bande, because of things like articulation and dynamics, contribute more to the content of the arias than the Bach Collegium. But, like I said before, it is quite possible that you would call 'mannerist' what I like about the way La Petite Bande plays. Your next point about articulation underlines that.

Johan van Veen wrote:
<< That brings me to one of my main complaints: the lack of a really good and crisp articulation. >>
Ryan Michero wrote:
< On the other hand, Leonhardt can be faulted for over-articulation. >
Johan van Veen wrote:
<< It is very striking how the choirs of Suzuki and Leonhardt sing the choruses and chorales. The Tölzer Knabenchor articulates very sharply, the main words are stressed, and every part of the text gets a full emotional weight, whereas Suzuki's choir sounds rather pale and neutral. In Leonhardts recording the chorales are gripping, because of the emotional interpretation ofthe text. Suzuki seems to take them as moments of rest and reflection, rather than as emotional reaction of the faithful. >>

Ryan Michero wrote:
< Suzuki's choir does not sound "pale and neutral" to me. Also, it just seems like an aspect of Suzuki's interpretation that the chorales are more like moments of rest and reflection. He avoids over-emotional dramatizing of the chorale texts, using them as more iconic representations of certain feelings than as a literal part of the drama. This is a valid interpretation. In this light, Leonhardt's chorales can seem mannered. >
You see? :)

Johan van Veen wrote:
<< The problem I have with Suzuki's recording is not the lack of drama or its introverted character, but a general blandness. Apart from some moments where both the Evangelist and the character of Jesus are involved, it never touches me. I have tried to formulate the reasons for that. Is my verdict too harsh? I am looking forward to other listeners' comments. >>
Ryan Michero wrote:
< I know I am predisposed to like Suzuki's recording as I have followed his cantata series almost from the beginning and I have found myself agreeing with most of the performing decisions he has made and enjoying his recordings immensely. For me, Suzuki has enlivened this passion the way no other performer has before. For you, he has not. >
So far I haven't heard his recording of the St John Passion (BWV 245) - a work I like even more than SMP. I hope to hear it some day. I haven't heard all his cantata recordings. My feelings about what I have heard are mixed. I liked some of them, some disappointed me. But I suppose that is inevitable in a series with all cantatas. There will always be some on which you disagree with an interpretation. I don't always like the Teldec recordings either. (Some basses Harnoncourt used are awful.) If I had to choose between Suzuki and Koopman, I think I'd prefer Suzuki.

Ryan Michero wrote:
< "De gustibus non est disputandum", I guess, but I will not accept that Suzuki's interpretation is invalid, bland, or uninspired. You just don't respond to his brand of Bach, which is fine.
Thanks for starting this healthy discussion--happy listening! >
The same to you - I am happy that you enjoy Suzuki's SMP.

Matthew Westphal wrote (August 14, 2000):
John Downes wrote:
< Is there an archive or these discussions? I've found the Cantatas archive of course, but not any others. >
I have a review of the Suzuki SMP up at : Amazon.com

I was flattered to find a link to the review from the front page of the BCJ's own Web site. Interestingly, they chose my review not because it was a rave, but because it was "the most balanced" review they found.

 

Suzuki SMP on headphones

Kirk McElhearn wrote (March 25, 2001):
I don't often listen to music on headphones, and don't have a very good set, but this evening decided to listen to the Suzuki SMP on headphones. I also listened to the first chorus of the Leonhardt recording to compare.

The Suzuki recording has much better spatial effects than the Leonhardt; the interplay between the orchestras and choruses stands out quite well. I wonder how other recordings stand up in this way?

Donald Satz wrote (March 25, 2001):
(To Kirk McElhearn) I generally listen to all my SMP's on headphones. Both Herreweghe's, Gardiner, the new Harnoncourt, Veldhoven, etc. are just as fine sounding in terms of interaction as the Suzuki.

Philips Peters wrote (March 26, 2001):
(To Donald Satz) Veldhoven?? Never heard this name before. Could you please give some details like names of the soloists et., year of recording, label & number, if it´s not too much trouble?

Aryeh Oron wrote (March 26, 2001):
(To Philip Peters) You have all the details in Bach Cantatas Website in the following page: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Vocal/BWV244-Veldhoven.htm

Donald Satz wrote (March 26, 2001):
(To Philip Peters) No problem. Actually the name is Veldhoven - Jos van Veldhoven. It's a three CD set on Channel Classics 11397. Veldhoven directs the Choir and Orchestra of the Netherlands Bach Society. The recording was made in 1997. Vocal soloists are:
Evangelist: Gerd Türk
Jesus: Geert Smits
Soprano: Johannette Zomer
Countertenor: Andreas Schmidt
Tenor: Hans Jorg Mammel
Bass: Peter Kooy

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (March 26, 2001):
(To Donald Satz) The Andreas Schmidt I know is a baritone. Is this the same person?

Philip Peters wrote (March 26, 2001):
(To Donald Satz) Oh...I see....I have that one. I should have guessed....thanks

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (March 26, 2001):
Well now I am more confused as Aryeh's site gives the following:
Tenor (Evangelist) - Gerd Türk, Bass (Jesus) - Geert Smits, Soprano - Johannette Zomer, Countertenor - Andreas Scholl, Tenor - Hans Jörg Mammel, Bass (Pilatus, Judas) - Peter Kooy
Oh, I've been reading it wrong. The comma is what counts, not the dash. OK. I know that Aryeh doesn't err :-). Last on this! Me
-------------
OKAY, Don made a lapsus, but Andreas Scholl in an alto/counter-tenor, so I still don't get him as the tenor.

 

BCJ US tour
SMP: Bach Collegium Japan
Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan on Tour in the US

Bob Henerson wrote (April 10, 2003):
Pleased to note rave reviews in LA Times and today in NYT of touring SMP. The newspapers view it as a Passion in a time of war. Apparently at least one soloist, Makoto Sakurada, wears a rainbow-colored armband. According to todays NYT,"The Bach Collegium Japan drew a roaring, standing ovation...." A small piece of sanity.

Roy Reed wrote (April 13, 2003):
Heard the SMP last night at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Maestro M Suzuki, his band and singers and some of the familiar cast:
Gerd Turk: E.
Peter Kooij: X
Robin Blaze: c.t.
Jochen Kupfer: b.
Yukari Nonoshita: s.

I am not really in a mood to comment on the performance. It was a luminous experience. I am still too alight to speak. The whole came together so wonderfully; the interpretations, the clarity and beauty of the choral sound, the silvery shimmer of the strings, the light penetrating tones of the flutes, the subdued but pungent and incisive reeds. Let's see....is HIP right, really right for this music?? (Does the pope wear a funny hat?)

I wish I could credit the singers with lesser roles. There was a fabulous program....60 pages, with german and english side by side; with extensive commentary; tunes and texts of the chorales. It was just....WOW!! It was prepared long before the event, and there was no insert identifying anybody. Quite a goof. I can pass on the names of the principles because I know who they are. The first soprano aria was sung by a young woman of the chorus...just a tiny slip of a girl with the voice of an angel. Wish I could give her name.

Calvin college built a symposium around this event: "Bach the Preacher." A wonderful event. They may publish the presentations. You can dial them up on the web and see if that is their intention...contact Prince Conference Center or the head of the music department. He is Calvin Stapert, author of "My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance and Discipleship in the Music of Bach." Surely his relation with Suzuki made this venue an item on the BCJ north american tour.

The receivers of this blessing brought Suzuki and his cast back onto the stage over and over and the applause and shouting did not ceast until every singer and performer had left the stage.

Mitsuo Fukuda wrote (April 13, 2003):
Roy Reed wrote:
< The first soprano aria was sung by a young woman of the chorus... just a tiny slip of a girl with the voice of an angel. Wish I could give her name. >
Her name is Yoshie Hida. She perhaps sang as Ancilla II in SMP.She is in her 30s. Her voice of an angel is in BIS-CD-871. (http://www.bis.se/releases98/new98.htm)

Bob Henderaon wrote (April 14, 2003):
That sweet soaring certain soprano vois a signature of the BCJ series. Yoshie Hida can also be heard solo in Volume 13 the cantata series BWV 69a and BWV 77 and in Volume 16, BWV 119. At the Boston concert of last Saturday April 12 the second soprano was sung with distinction,by yet another chior member, Mihoko Hoshikawa.

Jane Newble wrote (April 14, 2003):
[To Roy Reed] Your experience sounds absolutely wonderful.....!

Who cares about HIP, demi/semi voices or the Pope's hat when Bach is being brought before people in such a way? :o)

It reminds me of the Bach cantata concert I heard in the same small church you visited in England. An experience like this will never be forgotten and will lighten our memories forever.

Do you have any more information on: Calvin Stapert, author of "My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance and Discipleship in the Music of Bach." It sounds so interesting.

Bob Henderson wrote (April 14, 2003):
Raw and cold and it rained for 36 hours in Boston before the performance of the St Matthew Passion by the Bach Collegium Japan. Their last stop. We had traveled from Florida.

The venue was one of those huge wrecks of 19th century urban Catholic church aritecture one finds in eastern American cities. I believe it sat 1200 and 1200 seats were filled. We were in row 20 center. Huge and high. Alot of air for the human voice to push.

Initial disappointment. The two choruses and two orchestras were jammed right next to each other in a narrow nave with the choruses on risers behind the instruments. The sound from where we sat (and we were only 20 rows back, good seats I thought!) was homogeneous. Instruments and voices could be distinguished but there was no counter, no back and forth, no contrast. And the air appeared to swallow certain voices, Peter Kooij (Jesus) especially.

We have listened to too many CDs and too many canned performances! We expect electronically controlled volume and precise placement of sound. The imperfection of live performance escapes us!

I don't know what happened at the start of Part Two. Either my ear and expectations adjusted or the performance did become more forceful., In any event the concert became one-of-those-few-in-a-lifetime. It filled us. We did not talk afterward but my wife said the next day that she dreamed the music and awoke the next morning still hearing it!

Kudos to Robin Blaze. His 'Embarme Mich' filled the hall with its plea, his demand. To Yukari Nonoshita. Her'Aus Liebe' filled with small silences and delecacy caused time and space to disappear. To Jochen Kupfer. His "Mache dich' provided a big voiced but tender benediction. Gerd Turk: sturdy and humane. Peter Kooij, a very human Jesus.

And to Suzuki. The maestro hovered above the ensemble like a tall thin bird, all motion and request. He gathered the music to himself. His long thin fingers perfect in articulation. His ensemble is just that. No difference between him and them. His Ensemble support as good as the best of the solo work (it is said that ensemble players study the text and know it as well as those who voice it, in the BCJ. It is said they play the words as well as the notes! I believe it.)

Suzuki self-effacing and humorous at the pre concert talk now done. Arms up and out. He waits then slowly lowers them. Absolute silence, a long silence or so it seemed. Then soft applause building to a roar with floor stomping and chair slapping(and this in Boston!). Must have lasted 20 minutes till all left.

The Boston Globe did not review the concert.

Ron Shaffer wrote (April 14, 2003):
[To Bob Henderson] What an experience it must have been … thanks for sharing it with us.

I think the Boston Globe is more into stranglers and Martha’s Vineyard goings on ……

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 15, 2003):
Bob Henderson stated: >>The Boston Globe did not review the concert.<<
Check out the following links:
http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/105/living/Bach_Collegium_Japan_offers_heartfelt_Passion+.shtml

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A446-2003Apr9.html

On Gardiner (and what happened to the Bach cantata series...):
http://www.andante.com/article/article.cfm?id=20548

Mitsuo Fukuda wrote (April 15, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] Thank you very much for introducing a review of Bach Collegium Japan's SMP in Boston by Richard Dyer.

Let me point out "the excellent principal continuo cellist" is not his son but his youger brother.

Matthew Westphal wrote (April 18, 2003):
I know this isn't a recording, but there's a review of the BCJ's recent performance of the St. Matthew Passion at: http://www.andante.com/article/article.cfm?id=20596.

William D. Kasimer wrote (April 18, 2003):
[To Matthew Westphal] I attended their Boston performance a few days later, and while I more or less agree with Westphal about the quality of the performance, I disagree about one point - I think that it was vastly better than their recording. With the exception of Kooy (who really did sound out of sorts), everyone (especially Türk) sounded better, and where there were different singers (Nonoshita and Kupfer), the singers in the performance were a major improvement. The chorus also sounded far more engaged (the instrumentalists didn't, which was really the only fault I found with the performance).

BTW, in Boston Türk sang the first tenor aria (O Schmerz...Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen), fortunately. Oddly, Kooy also sang one of the bass arias (Ja freilich...Komm süsses Kreuz) in addition to Jesus' recitatives - is this assigned to the first chorus bass soloist in the score? I don't think that I've ever heard it done.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 18, 2003):
Bill Kasimer wondered:
>>Oddly, Kooy also sang one of the bass arias (Ja freilich...Komm süsses Kreuz) in addition to Jesus' recitatives - is this assigned to the first chorus bass soloist in the score? I don't think that I've ever heard it done.<<
'B7: Basso 1. Chori Jesus' designates the bass that should sing the recitative mvt. 56 ("Ja freilich") and the following aria, mvt. 57 ("Komm süßes Kreuz") according to the NBA. This original part contains all the solo and choral parts assigned to the 1st chorus. The part 'B 26: Basso Chori II' does not include this aria (and none of the Jesus part) as it contains only the solo and choral parts assigned to the 2nd chorus. The orchestral accompaniment is likewise divided so that, for instance, only the flutes assigned to Chorus I should be playing in this recitative and aria. The flutes assigned to Chorus II have nothing (tacet) in their parts for this mvt.

Matthew Westphal wrote (April 19, 2003):
Bill K. says:
>>> I attended their Boston performance a few days later, and while I more or less agree with Westphal about the quality of the performance, I disagree about one point - I think that it was vastly better than their recording. With the exception of Kooy (who really did sound out of sorts), everyone (especially Trk) sounded better, and where there were different singers (Nonoshita and Kupfer), the singers in the performance were a major improvement. <<<
In the review of the concert I didn't really intend to make any comparisons with the BCJ SMP recording, only to point out that Suzuki's generally subdued approach was the same on his recording as in the concert (meaning that I think it's a deliberate choice).

I agree with Bill that (except for Kooy), the singing in general and the soloists in particular were better in the concert than on the recording.

Masaaki Suzuki and Matthew

Emily L. Freguson wrote (April 21, 2003):
I've been looking at your site and realizing that from time to time I might like to be talking with your group, especially after seeing the reviews of Suzuki's Matthew in Boston.

About that performance I want to contribute my own experienceto the reviews.

Something really magical was going on there. I haven't yet been able to put my finger on it, I'm not even certain I want to do that, but the complete assimilation of the style as the musicologists have been helping us learn to understand it is part of it. Over the last 40 years I've been watching and listening to the generations of performers starting with Landowska and Deller and Dolmetsch and Richter, and moving to Harnoncourt and from there to the next generation of English and the the Dutch and now this outreach to these Japanese performers. The earliest group struggled just to interpret the rules and try to figure out how to permit themselves to change all their assumptions about performance. Bridging that gap between their training and this set of different rules was their task. But the next generation got to cross that bridge and start to figure out how to play the music, not just how to get the notes properly output, but what the musicality was about.

The generation after that was the first to abandon their training in their youth and go more or less straight to this other language, and they came with even fewer encumbrances.

Now we have this bunch of kids, old enough to be my grandchildren, and it seems they only speak this different musical language. I've asked Le Petit Christoph whether he even knows what Robert Casadesus did with Rameau. It's a foreign language to him - the gap is so large. I asked Ryo Terakado how he dealt with crossing the style gap and he told me he'd moved to Brussels and quit the Tokyo Phil to play and teach this exclusively.

And the wonderful part of this transition, it seems to me, is that the heart and intense feeling has come back to the performance. It's not Brahms, or Mendelssohn, or Britten or Shostakovich, but it's got all that variety of color and emotion. The soloists in Boston gave us each of the contemplative arias as though they were sparkling jewels of feeling. I remember standing against one of the piers towards the back of the church and listening to the soprano. She gave me a little ruby to hold in my hand. It glowed there. Türk's face wrenched with pain as he told the story. This stuff is real to these people, somehow, and they made it real to us.

It's been two weeks now, and I'm still trying to get back to normal life. It was a watershed experience, hardly the first of my musical career, but still just really special. Suzuki's attention to detail was strongly reminiscent of Dieter's, his explication of the text through his ensemble really bore an uncanny resemblence to what Dieter did with Schubert's and Brahms' songs. They both seemed to be able to get at the emotional detail while keeping the bigger essence in their purview.

Douglas Neslund wrote (April 22, 2003):
[To Emily L. Ferguson] I, too, had the same reactions as did you, when Maestro Suzuki and his incredible ach band performed here in Los Angeles prior to their performance in Boston. You will be envious to know that we got to hear both Passions: Mark and Matthew, on onsecutive nights. The savages that seem to dominate this sprawling city stayed away in droves, leaving the true believers to appreciate the honesty and clarity of these performances. Both were near to perfection, and hearing both Passions were like being present at a recording session.

I write music reviews for a local online magazine (The Beverly Hills Outlook), and the John review is still up for anyone who wishes to go read it – at: http://www.bhoutlook.us The Matthew review will appear in two weeks' time (the mag being biweekly).

It's almost funny how you describe your feelings coming away from the event, with the "afterglow" still with you after two weeks! The reviewer for the LA Times had a very similar reaction, but being the irreligious person that he must be, wondered in print what it was he felt, but could not understand.

After the second performance, a few questions from me to the key soloists revealed that all are committed Christians. I had only limited time with Masaaki Suzuki himself, and didn't get to ask him "the" question. The incredible gamba player in the John accompanied "Es ist vollbracht" duet with tears rolling down his face, a perfect partnership with countertenor Robin Blaze. These performers are believers (except for one soloist - could you tell which one??) and were not afraid to let their faith show.

Would you agree that a profession of faith through the music of Bach would result in a powerful impression that could be felt by Christian and non-Christians alike?

Boyd Pehrson wrote (April 22, 2003):
[To : Emily L. Ferguson & Douglas Neslund] First, Emily your words are most eloquent and apropos regarding what I can only say is the Suzuki phenomena. Suzuki and Company performed exquisitely here in Los Angeles. I too was present for the Passion according to St John and for the St Matthew's on the proceeding night. (Douglas meant St John's and not St Mark's Passion.)

Secondly, as Douglas referred to a profession of faith through the music of Bach would result in a powerful impression, there is support on that point by the great J.S. Bach biographer Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who said in effect that J.S. Bach is not sung convincingly unless the singer believes what they are singing. I would tend to agree.

The audience at Royce Hall in University of California at Los Angeles was made up mostly of arts patrons, musicologists and music critics... interestingly the cream of the crop in Los Angeles arts circles. When Emily spoke of a watershed concert by Suzuki and Company, I would agree- and Suzuki is on the cutting edge and spearhead of J.S. Bach interpretation. Critics from Los Angeles to Boston were treated to the ultimate
expression of Bach's Passions, pure Bach, and Suzuki has in this concert series created a new benchmark for Bach performances- one of 'perfection'. This perfection has its limitations (more on that aspect later), but it is as close as humans may come to a stylistically purely distilled J.S. Bach.

By the way, if you had not the opportunity to attend these concerts, the St Matthew's by Suzuki and company is available on CD with virtually the same singers and soloists, save the soprano soloist.

Johan van Veen wrote (April 22, 2003):
[To Douglas Neslund] As far as Masaaki Suzuki is concerned, he is a member of the Reformed Church of Japan. He is also organist in his local church and is involved in the edition of a Book of Psalms for his denomination.

Douglas Neslund wrote (April 22, 2003):
[To Boyd Pehrson] Thanks to Boyd for correcting the obvious error in my earlier post.

Douglad Neslund wrote (April 22, 2003):
[To Johan van Veen] Thank you for that info, Johan, which only underlines my point, that believers can deliver a level of honesty regarding the performance of Bach's works beyond (I think) what a non-believer could. I may stand corrected, but the one soloist who professed his religion to be socialism instead of Christianity was also the one who did not deliver the message with the same power as those who did.

I would be interested to know if anyone (especially Emily) would take a guess as to which soloist was the socialist.

Andreas Burghardt wrote (April 22, 2003):
[To Douglas Neslund] well, I have to confess that I am sceptic about this theory. Your observation might be true for the performance you attended, or even in most other cases, but I doubt that it can be generalized. In my opinion the level of honesty perceived by the audience depends mainly on the charisma of the singer and his or her empathy and not on the believing. Sure, believers should have an easier grasp for the Christian dimension of Bach's works, but I am also sure, open-minded non-believers can understand and perform this music as convincing as believers do. By the way, Christianity and socialism are not in contradiction.

Emily L. Freguson wrote (April 22, 2003):
Certainly anyone in tune with current events should be able to see that any sort of emotion-based cleaving to a savior-centered mythology creates serious social proble- over-population, failure of thoughtful engagement with earth threatening behaviors, illusions of self-control and personal power, abject denial of reality, inadequate self-preparation for the future, etc.

All of these were prevalent throughout what we now think of as Europe, and indeed far to both the east and west of it (nb. the "pilgrims" landed 25 miles from me in 1620), and although I have not pursued any rigorous study of the Leipzig of Bach's time, I have noticed bits and pieces that indicate that Bach was both centered in his present dilemmas and inclined to take sustenance from the popular panacea. His quote to that effect is pretty well known, although I'm not certain that anyone has yet been able to determine how his youthful committment to "music for the glory of god" played out.

The other day I took out my copy of Dürr and read the following sentence:

"Mit dem Jahre 1735 - also noch 15 Jahre vor seinem Tode - ist die Entwicklung der Kirchenkantate Bachs abgeschlossen; die wenigen noch folgenden Werke tragen zu der stolzen und vielfältigen Geschichte der Gattung nichts Neues mehr bei." Seite 63, underlining (if you can see it) mine.

So I continue to wonder - how did Sebastian's spiritual engagement get altered by his daily struggles with the good church officials of Leipzig? Why did he stay? Was it just the need for a place to live and steady paycheck, because of the endless child production? Would his life have been different, perhaps even more involved with evangelism, if he'd been able to have all the sex he wanted without this endless supply of kids? Alternatively did he have an ever heightened sense of becoming an old fogey musically? I understand he took refuge in an ever-smaller group of people who actually appreciated what he was good at in the face of the continuous clear lack of understanding from his bosses.

But did all his extracurricular activities - his organ Prüfung jobs all over his section of "Germany", his reputedly satisfying connections to the kids at the U - sustain him against all the pressures at the Thomaskirche?

Somehow I can't envision that he would have attempted to change his style to remain employable. I believe that he was not a particularly flexible person when it came to his creative activities. Being stylish was fine for his kids, except maybe for Friedemann. Many of them even bought into the stil galant and more or less survived. But Sebastian was not on that track.

So, no, I didn't discern any philosophical difference between one soloist or another in Suzuki's performance in Boston. And, although "you gotta believe" in order to do some things, connecting as a listener or performer with Bach's world does not seem to me to be one of them.

Boyd Pehrson wrote (April 23, 2003):
[To Emily L. Ferguson] I think even a sensitive singer who is also a gifted actor can at least be a good study of Bach's ideas- enough to transmit them well. One should at least be able to honestly articulate even their opponents' arguments. I think Douglas' point has validity, in that people who believe what they are singing and acting do have an edge... but they still must have superior gifts, training and talent to be sure.

As for your other humorous points:
It seems these days our society tries to minimalize everything, perhaps all in the great minimalist tradition of the 20th century. I wouldn't attempt to boil J.S. Bach's life down to any either/or propositions. Bach's life was complex and so was his culture. Bach's "emotion-based cleaving to a savior-centered mythology" as you put it, has given the world immeasurable gifts. If that "mythology" populates the world, with people and with beautiful art, then perhaps it may conversely be said that the atheism of the world's first really secular century- the 20th, has de-populated and de-humanized the world by 100 million souls, and degraded art to its lowest levels, partly through its anti-religious zealots like Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin and the like. Is it "Christian Europe" that is mostly overpopulated now days? Certainly it was Darwin who spoke of survival of the fittest, while it was Jesus Christ who forgave the woman caught in adultery. J.S. Bach's confession was that he followed Christ.

Minimalizing J.S. Bach's life in Leipzig to some zero-population growth movement cliche doesn't do justice to the complexities of his ideas. Whether we like it or not the impetus for Bach's creative genius- his spiritual belief- is worthy of as careful consideration as Einstein's special theory of relativity.

Emily L. Ferguson wrote (April 23, 2003):
< Boyd Pehrson wrote: I think even a sensitive singer who is also a gifted actor can at least be a good study of Bach's ideas- enough to transmit them well. One should at least be able to honestly articulate even their opponents' arguments. I think Douglas' point has validity, in that people who believe what they are singing and acting do have an edge... but they still must have superior gifts, training and talent to be sure. >
Well, I certainly agree on the gifts/training/talent but I'm afraid I can't join you in believing that there is any inherent advantage to the "believer" when it comes to the Johannespassion, or to any other piece of music. Did the orchestras who played Shostakovich's placating music play it better because they believed in the system that paid them? Did it make that music any better quality?

An actor cannot limit him/herself to only those things that s/he buys into completely and still make a living. These folks who were performing are attempting to do this as a profession and have to be able to move from Monteverdi to Bach to Lully - three wildly diverse belief systems.

< J.S. Bach's confession was that he followed Christ. <
But I don't know that he did that. Certainly a cursory perusal of his life in Leipzig shows that he spent a great deal of his musical energy doing something else and fighting with the school. Clearly he no longer felt it necessary to invest his creative energy in music for the weekly celebration of mass since he stopped composing Kantaten pretty much within 5 years of being hired. There's as good a chance that that reflected a change of his feelings toward his belief, as there is, alternatively, a working out of a long-term plan.

< Minimalizing J.S. Bach's life in Leipzig to some zero-population growth movement cliche doesn't do justice to the complexities of his ideas. Whether we like it or not the impetus for Bach's creative genius- his spiritual belief- is worthy of as careful consideration as Einstein's special theory of relativity. >
At the same time, not considering the pressures he was working under, and that he brought upon himself, leaves us with an incomplete picture and robs us of opportunites for more complete understanding. I agree, in his youth his spiritual belief was his publicly declared motivation, but I'd like to see how that played out. Can you imagine the transition from Köthen to Leipzig? What a shock that must have been. To go from an environment where you were appreciated and had all the musical resources and control over them that you could dream of to one where you were the third choice and had to complain that you had 17 boy singers who would never be adequate (and only 17 who he characterized as "usable") must have been rather dispiriting. And in fact we do know that he complained.

To return to the original subject, which concerned the relevance of Suzuki's performers' religious orientation to their performance, however, I agree with you that believing is not a prerequisite for successful performance.

Matthew Neugebauer wrote (April 23, 2003):
< Douglas Neslund wrote: Would you agree that a profession of faith through the music of Bach would result in a powerful impression that could be felt by Christian and non-Christians alike? >
while I wasn't at the performances (from the truckload of positive sentiments I've read I really wish I had!) I believe the above is the greatest way to perform Bach. It's exponentially more authentic becuase it transcends the act of getting into Bach's mind, and goes all the way into the deep chambers of Bach's . However, it is even exponentially more authentic than that, as it delves into the very heart of Christ himself. I go to a charismatic church, so we hold to the idea that whoever is doing music on stage is not a worship leader, just a lead worshipper. From what I have read about audience reaction to these performances, Turk, Blaze, etc. were truly just lead worshippers, bringing the audience to the heart of Christ as well.

Douglas Neslund wrote (April 23, 2003):
[To Matthew Neugebauer] I must say, I have enjoyed stirring the pot a little bit, even to the point of almost causing trouble, but that really wasn't my intention. My question(s) arose from the responses of others to what they were feeling, having heard a performance or a recording by the Bach Collegium Japan, who could not identify the source of that they were hearing expressed so powerfully.

Now, to relieve my good friend Andreas just a bit, I have no particular reason to believe that a socialist could not sing a Christian piece of music with the same degree of power and conviction, but I do not have that answer - other than a personal one, and we have read the personal responses of several, and we do come to different conclusions - and that should not be a surprise. By the same token, a Christian singer might not sing with the conviction that was so obvious in the Suzuki performances, so it is really a moot point after all ! (We should leave the subject of the relationship of Christianity and socialism, which is off topic here, for another venue.)

I enjoyed very much reading all the various responses, and hope that this list will be open to such intelligent and considered topics relating to our beloved Bach in the future.

One aside to Emily, whose writing I very much enjoyed reading: do you think that perhaps Bach stopped writing cantatas because he already had composed more than four complete church year cycles, and felt that was enough. (Johan, please correct me if I am not remembering the exact number of total cycles - not all of which survived, of course, but suffice it to say, he deserved a rest after writing the hundreds we do know about.)

Again, thanks to all who participated.

Best wishes, and do go to hear the Bach Collegium Japan anytime you can! They are special.

Emily L. Freguson wrote (April 23, 2003):
< Douglas Neslund wrote: One aside to Emily, whose writing I very much enjoyed reading: do you think that perhaps Bach stopped writing cantatas because he already had composed more than four complete church year cycles, and felt that was enough. >
It was, theoretically, 5 cycles. There were a number of pressures on him. I'm working on reading the intro to Durr right now to see what they thought accounted for it. It's in German, and my German is, shall we say, very rusty.

My personal opinion is that he stopped for maybe 3 big reasons - first he had enough material, second his bosses thought he was "too operatic" and his style was old fogeyish so he turned to using Kantaten by a cousin (Dürr) i.e. nobody cared, third he never could get adequately trained forces for his own music.

I've ordered Marissen from Amazon, as well, to see what he has to say about the Johannespassion and the gospel of John and the Jews. There's an article I found last night on the web that Marissen wrote that may be a precis of this book.

Unfortunately Durr's study of the Johannespassion costs $65 which is totally out of any budget I'll see in the next 25 years. Maybe I can get it on interlibrary loan from BPL....

When I stopped trying to be a musicologist I was trying to write about the Johannespassion and Bach's relationship with the 4 Brockes passions of Hamburg. That was back in 1973 and even then I was very interested in trying to determine how Bach's attitude towards his "music for the glory of God" position changed as he aged.

It seems I'm still interested.

Emily L. Freguson wrote (April 30, 2003):
Well, for the last two weeks I've been listening to Gardiner's John, which seemed spectacular to me when I got it years ago. Especially, my favorite aria, Ach, Mein Sinn, seemed really exactly like Bach intended - Peter's brain seemed to be spinning around and around - verwirrt I think describes it to me. Which is the way I think Peter
felt when he realized what he'd done.

But yesterday, despite my best efforts to get Suzuki's John, the lady who had it used on amazon seems to have made an error and I'm sitting here looking at Suzuki's Matthew.

OK.

Not what I was expecting, but wotthehell, as Mehitabel used to say.

All I can say is that a lot has changed in the world of Bach performance between Gardiner and Suzuki. I think one can't even compare them. It's not the engineering, although that does have something to do with it, it's not the size of the chorus and band, they seem to be rather on the same wavelength on forces. It's the whole concept - Gardiner is amazingly close in spirit to Forster somehow, a sense of heft, weightiness, self-importance somehow. Suzuki is delicate and light as a feather, translucent, clean. The ssses hiss a bit too much for my taste, but its a different balance between the music and the performance. The composition seems to be in front while the performance seems to be less important.

Interesting.

 

Matthäus-Passion BWV 244: Details
Recordings: 1900-1949 | 1950-1959 | 1960-1969 | 1970-1979 | 1980-1989 | 1990-1999 | 2000-2009 | 2010-2019 | Individual Movements
General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | BWV 244a | BWV 244b
Systemetic Discussions:
Part 1: Mvts. 1-8 | Part 2: Mvts. 9-20 | Part 3: Mvts. 21-29 | Part 4: Mvts. 30-40 | Part 5: Mvts. 41-50 | Part 6: Mvts. 51-57 | Part 7: Mvts. 58-63b | Part 8: Mvts. 63c-68 | Part 9: Role of the Evangelist
Individual Recordings:
BWV 244 - L. Bernstein | BWV 244 - F. Brüggen | BWV 244 - J. Butt | BWV 244 - R. Chailly | BWV 244 - S. Cleobury | BWV 244 - J. Daus | BWV 244 - D. Fasolis | BWV 244 - W. Furtwängler | BWV 244 - J.E. Gardiner | BWV 244 - W. Gönnenwein | BWV 244 - P. Goodwin | BWV 244 - E.z. Guttenberg | BWV 244 - N. Harnoncourt | BWV 244 - P. Herreweghe | BWV 244 - R. Jacques | BWV 244 - H.v. Karajan | BWV 244 - O. Klemperer | BWV 244 - T. Koopman | BWV 244 - S. Koussevitzky | BWV 244 - S. Kuijken | BWV 244 - F. Lehmann | BWV 244 - G. Leonhardt | BWV 244 - P.J. Leusink | BWV 244 - E.&R. Mauersberger | BWV 244 - H. Max | BWV 244 - P. McCreesh | BWV 244 - W. Mengelberg | BWV 244 - K. Münchinger | BWV 244 - R. Norrington | BWV 244 - G. Oberfrank | BWV 244 - S. Ozawa | BWV 244 - A. Parrott | BWV 244 - G. Ramin | BWV 244 - S. Rattlr | BWV 244 - K. Richter | BWV 244 - H. Rilling | BWV 244 - H.J. Rotzsch | BWV 244 - H. Scherchen | BWV 244 - G. Solti | BWV 244 - C. Spering | BWV 244 - M. Suzuki | BWV 244 - J.v. Veldhoven | BWV 244 - B. Walter | BWV 244 - F. Werner | BWV 244 - M. Wöldike
Articles:
Saint Matthew Passion, BWV 244 [T.N. Towe] | Two Easter St. Matthew Passions (Plus One) [U. Golomb] | St. Matthew Passion from Harnoncourt [D. Satz] | The Passion according to Saint Matthew BWV 244 [J. Rifkin] | The Relationship between BWV 244a (Trauermusik) and BWV 244b (SMP Frühfassung) [T. Braatz] | Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 - Early History (A Selective, Annotated Bibliography) [W. Hoffman] | Spiritual Sources of Bach's St. Matthew Passion [W. Hoffman] | Bach and the "Great Passion" [D.G. Lebut Jr.] | The Genesis of Bach's `Great Passion': 1724-29 [W. Hoffman] | Early Performances of Bach's SMP [T. Braatz]

Masaaki Suzuki: Short Biography | Bach Collegium Japan
Recordings of Vocal Works:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Recordings of Instrumental Works
General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Cantatas:
Suzuki - Vol. 2 | Suzuki - Vol. 5 | Suzuki - Vol. 8 | Suzuki - Vol. 9 | Suzuki - Vol. 10 | Suzuki - Vol. 11 | Suzuki - Vol. 12 | Suzuki - Vol. 13 | Suzuki - Vol. 14 | Suzuki - Vol. 15 | Suzuki - Vol. 16 | Suzuki - Vol. 17 | Suzuki - Vol. 18 | Suzuki - Vol. 19 | Suzuki - Vol. 20 | Suzuki - Vol. 21 | Suzuki - Vol. 22 | Suzuki - Vol. 23 | Suzuki - Vol. 24 | Suzuki - Vol. 25 | Suzuki - Vol. 26 | Suzuki - Vol.. 27 | Suzuki - Vol. 28 | Suzuki - Vol. 29 | Suzuki - Vol. 30 | Suzuki - Vol. 31 | Suzuki - Vol. 38 | Suzuki - Vol. 43 | Suzuki Secular - Vol. 1
Other Vocal Works:
BWV 232 - M. Suzuki | BWV 243 - M. Suzuki | BWV 244 - M. Suzuki | BWV 245 - M. Suzuki | BWV 248 - M. Suzuki
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Bach’s Clavier-Ubung III from Masaaki Suzuki | Bach Harpsichord Discs from Hill and Suzuki | Bach’s French Suites from Suzuki | Review: Partitas by Suzuki [McElhearn] | Suzuki’s Partitas [Henderson] | Suzuki’s Goldberg Variations
Discussions of Instrumental Recordings:
Partitas BWV 825-830 - played by M. Suzuki
Table of recordings by BWV Number

Recordings & Discussions of Other Vocal Works: Main Page | Motets BWV 225-231 | Mass in B minor BWV 232 | Missae Breves & Sanctus BWV 233-242 | Magnificat BWV 243 | Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 | Johannes-Passion BWV 245 | Lukas-Passion BWV 246 | Markus-Passion BWV 247 | Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248 | Oster-Oratorium BWV 249 | Chorales BWV 250-438 | Geistliche Lieder BWV 439-507 | AMN BWV 508-523 | Quodlibet BWV 524 | Aria BWV 1127

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Last update: ýJanuary 7, 2010 ý13:30:43