Masaaki Suzuki, the internationally renowned Bach specialist, brought gripping drama and superb pacing to his performance of the 1749 version (the last of four) of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion Thursday night April 21st with an appropriately downsized but energized Boston Symphony Orchestra, a roster of excellent soloists, and sixty singers drawn from the ever-diligent and responsive Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Anyone harboring an interest in this wonderful music ought to try to attend the remaining performance on Saturday evening, April 23. The rewards are abundant.
From Maestro Suzuki’s first incisive downbeat it was evident that something special and, frankly, unexpected was afoot. In a town rife with expert early music ensembles and a high level of performance practice knowledge, it seemed a bit daring of the BSO to program this extraordinary work. The orchestra’s usual stock-in-trade is music from later historic periods. Yet great music should be heard by as many people as possible, and it was heartening to see that Symphony Hall was almost full with quietly attentive listeners. And these listeners heard a riveting performance, full of drama, elegantly sung, never dull, always involving, and rife with the pathos of the Apostle John’s remarkable telling of the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus.
I have always been struck with how different the two major Bach passions are from one another. Bach’s setting of John is more overtly dramatic, more quickly paced almost in jump-shot newsreel fashion than the composer’s setting of Matthew, which is more monumental in scope, more contemplative and deeply focused inward, and takes time to ponder philosophically the enormity of the unjustified cruelty meted out upon Jesus by the government and its surrounding subservients. In addition, the two depictions of Pilate are quite different. In Matthew, he is the minion of his government and tries to curry favor with the populace. In John, Pilate is a more human, even humane, individual. At one point, he asks of Jesus – and himself – “What is Truth?” And, as John tells us, after his questioning of Jesus, Pilate seeks to find ways to free Christ from his captors, implying a sympathy with his prisoner not heard in Matthew. And then there is the angry crowd, savage, bloodthirsty, and unrelentingly bent on destruction in John, hungry for the same yet a bit less “italicized” in Bach’s Matthew setting. Many more differences abound, too numerous to discuss here. What is most interesting to me in all of this is how Bach characterizes each Apostle’s recounting of the same event, reflecting in music John and Matthew’s unique perspectives – two different men with distinct personalities and degrees of observation.
That incisive downbeat mentioned above set in motion one of the great dramatic tales in all of music. At Maestro Suzuki’s ideal tempo, the swirling, turbulent strings tumultuously surged as oboes wailed above in painful and slow suspensions, underpinned by the bass instruments’ incessant and throbbing pedal-tones, all as prelude to the impact of the chorus’s tripartite heartfelt cry of “Herr…” (Lord). If this sounds like an unnecessarily “purple” description of the Bach St. John Passion’s opening moments, I can only urge you to go to the concert listen for yourselves – it’s all there in the music.
The mood and pace thus established, Maestro Suzuki led his musicians in an extraordinary performance of this tragic tale so dramatically portrayed by Bach’s genius for characterization and dramatic exposition. Christoph Prégardien has an ideal voice for the Evangelist — clear, bright, and beautifully colored. He was unerringly effective and dramatic in his storytelling, though he was, unfortunately, suffering from a cold, which compromised some of his high notes, but none of his impact. That he was able to sing through his illness and present such a strong characterization is a real tribute to his resourcefulness and professionalism. His role is the most demanding of the soloists, and one hopes he can marshal his voice successfully through the ensuing performances as he has also been allotted one very demanding tenor arioso and two arias.
The role of Jesus was sung, deeply and expressively, by bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann, who also was asked to sing the additional bass arioso and two arias. It was instructive to see and hear how differently he and his tenor colleague altered their onstage personae when asked to step out of character for their arias. Mr. Müller-Brachmann, in particular, employed a good deal of “body English” as he sang his arias, but did so in an understandably reactive fashion to the text. Whatever his role, he was a commanding visual and vocal presence, and he brought sensitive musicianship to everything he sang. His essay of “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen,” his thrilling high-speed duet with the chorus urging all in earshot to rush to Golgatha to be present at Jesus’s crucifixion, was ideal in its fervor and proselytizing zeal.
Hana Blasíková brought an extraordinarily clear timbre to her two soprano arias. Her program book biography alludes to her many early-music pursuits, and surely some of that experience informs the tone she brought to her singing. It was very effective, though not evenly focused top to bottom. This was no serious detriment, however, and her singing was expressive, heartfelt, and with good continuity in her assignments, the first early in the first half, and her last late in the second half.
Ingeborg Danz, contralto, brought lovely tone to her two arias when not heavily accompanied. However, she was not sufficiently audible in her first, “Von den Stricken…”, though Maestro Suzuki seemed to be trying to calm its plangent oboe duet accompaniment, strongly played by John Ferrillo and Robert Sheena. The same lack of sufficient vocal heft was evident in the rapid and ardent middle section of the great “Es ist vollbracht!” though that aria’s slow beginning and end were lovely. The solo Viola da gamba accompaniment was curiously detached sounding, surprising in a town full of expressive players that could have been engaged.
The solid ministrations of the vocally gifted baritone David Kraviz brought well-sung and brightly characterized personae to the brief but dramatically essential roles of Peter and Pilate. Always an engaged and thoughtful singer, it was a pleasure to see him on the Symphony Hall stage so soon after his triumph as Nick Shadow in Emmanuel Music’s The Rake’s Progress last week.
The other important “character” in Bach’s Passions is, of course, the chorus, and here, once again, John Oliver’s crisply trained Tanglewood Festival Chorus did not disappoint. In fact, they thrilled. From their opening cry of “Herr…” through the chorales so carefully shaped by Suzuki, they were of singular mind and sound. In the turba choruses they were appropriately frightening in their vehemence as they cried for Jesus’s crucifixion and pinpoint accurate later with their fleeting “Wohin?” interjections. They even managed to sing through the conductor’s breakneck tempo for the famous dice-throwing soldiers’ chorus “Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen,” which, to these ears, was simply too fast, one of the conductor’s only missteps of the evening. Throughout their music, the chorus’s German was exemplary.
The impressive continuo players were anchored by organist James David Christie, ‘cellist Martha Babcock, and bassist Lawrence Wolfe. The busy Suzuki conducted from a stage-center harpsichord which he played for the recitatives.
It was quite wonderful to witness the completeness of conception Masaaki Suzuki brought to his interpretation. It was clear from the very beginning that this is a man who knows what he wants. Importantly, he indicates everything he wants clearly and precisely to his musicians. There is no indecision or hesitation in his gestures. While obviously something of a taskmaster, he appears to have the attention and respect of everyone on stage at every moment. Most importantly, his interpretation was of individual movements united in one long arc of drama from beginning to end. His was a story told in brilliant and heartfelt musicianship, paced with assurance and force, emotional but never maudlin, precise but never mechanical. As a twenty-first-century approach to Baroque music with an orchestra more accustomed to the style of later periods, I found his approach close to ideal. Here is a musician whom one never doubted is on a mission – to bring Bach into the lives of his listeners and performers in as forceful and meaningful a manner as is possible. That is a noble cause, and the BSO is to be complimented for engaging this dedicated musician to share with us his deep insights into the emotional force of this great score.
Attend the concert Saturday if you can. Listen on WCRB 99.5 if you can’t. Either way, your time will be well rewarded.