in: Reviews

April 22, 2011

BSO Bach St. John Passion Gripping, Moving

by

Stu Rosner Photo

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.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 31 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 32 years.

22 Comments

  1. Oh dear. I fear I attended a different concert. The performance I heard was hectic, unbalanced and uneven. I’m sorry the Evangelist had a cold, but his inability to sing at the top of his range was a real problem. The other soloists were very good for the most part although very different one from the other, and both women were mostly drowned out by the orchestra. I’ll wager you’d count yourself lucky to hear any of them in a church with the right kind of early music ensemble. Even the continuo was a mish-mosh. Two double basses? You couldn’t hear the main note of the harpsichord’s chords because he was being over-ridden. You’ll note that John Oliver did not take a bow. Why? because Maestro Suzuki apparently took over management of the chorus insisting that they use scores to keep track of his many stresses and accents. While I respect the reviewer’s opinion, this very pointed and emphatic approach worked poorly for me, *especially* with Ruht Wohl which in my opinion should be delivered with prayerful serenity, not rousing bombast. Also, way too many singers. As a fellow listener remarked, “Did he think he was conducting Beethoven’s 9th?” I agree that the BSO should be commended for programming this titanic and wondrous work, and I hope they will keep experimenting to get the mix right. It does seem to be a very difficult thing to bring in assorted Early Music specialists singers from Europe, put them in a large hall and back them up in a way that they can be heard over modern instruments which are so much louder than the period ones.

    Comment by Owlish — April 22, 2011 at 7:43 pm

  2. I have to second Owlish. The soloists were at best a mixed bag. Prégardien, whatever the excuse, didn’t have enough voice at the top of his range, so that his attempt to hit those notes with any quality at all distracted from any attempt to deliver the text in a meaningful way. Danz belongs in a smallish church. Blasíková sang well but with generic feeling. Müller-Brachmann is the one to invite back. The opening chorus was mud. Most of the other choruses were just a shade better, merely muddy. The chorales were over-characterized, idiosyncratic in their accents and fussy shifts in volume. I walked home humming the St. Matthew to erase the memory of this performance. Mache dich, mein Herze, rein…

    Comment by Bill — April 22, 2011 at 8:14 pm

  3. Just as a point of information: John Oliver was injured in an accident a few weeks ago. He didn’t take a bow because he hasn’t been able to return yet, not because of some imagined disagreement with Maestro Suzuki.

    Comment by Chris — April 22, 2011 at 10:12 pm

  4. I went on Friday afternoon. On the whole the arias were not performed well enough. If one does not already have a ticket for Saturday night, I would not recommend buying one.

    Comment by John — April 22, 2011 at 10:17 pm

  5. owlish, interesting theory, HOWEVER: John Oliver was injured and not present at the concert… so your hypothesis on his absence from the bows is pure fiction.

    Comment by anonymous — April 22, 2011 at 10:22 pm

  6. I was at the rehearsal Wednesday evening. Mr Prégardien was clearly suffering from some ailment. He coughed several times and cleared his throat at others. And at points I wondered if he was taking prhases an octave low to save his voice. So his performance clearly could not be first rate. If, as Owlish and Bill suggests, Maestro Suzuki was too fussy with the chorus, on Wednesday evening, as a non-professional, I enjoyed the turbæ, especially the lively “Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen,” which has always been a favorite of mine.

    Maybe this is one of those glass half full or half empty situations. I wonder how Maestro Suzuki feels about how it all ended up.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 22, 2011 at 11:11 pm

  7. They order, said I, this matter better in France.

    Part 1: http://www.concertzender.nl/programmagids.php?date=2011-04-18&month=0&detail=48829

    Part 2: http://www.concertzender.nl/programmagids.php?date=2011-04-17&month=0&detail=48562

    Comment by Richard Buell — April 22, 2011 at 11:23 pm

  8. William Hite was brought in to sing the 2 tenor arias for the Friday afternoon performance.

    Comment by Janice — April 23, 2011 at 12:05 am

  9. I don’t remember exactly where they broke at the rehearsal on Wednesday, but does what you linked mean that the French took the break after the recitative about the crown of thorns? Wouldn’t it make more sense to break after a chorale?

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 23, 2011 at 12:30 am

  10. What the Concertzender station did was broadcast the first disc of the Benoit Haller/La Chapelle Rhenane 2-CD set on one date, and the second on another.

    It so happens that the Evangelist for the Haller performance, Julian Pregardien, is the son of Christoph Pregardien, who took the very same role this week with the BSO.

    This YouTube clip — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ksq4Uxb1_WU — shows FP in characteristic (and healthy) form. No singer alive enjoys a higher reputation in the Lieder repertoire.

    Comment by Richard Buell — April 23, 2011 at 2:55 am

  11. Sorry! That should be “CP,” not “FP,” in my last sentence above.

    And while I’m at it … “Follow Goethe: Lieder after poems by Goethe” (CPO 999 685-2)is one of many recommendable CP recitals on disc — this one especially so for its three masterpieces by Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957). The spell having duly been cast, OF COURSE you’ll want to track down and read “Schoeck the Revolutionary” in “Robin Holloway On Music: Essays and Diversions 1963-2003” (Brinkworth, Wilts, UK: Claridge Press Ltd., 2003). Christoph Pregardien is the sort of singer who does that to people.

    Comment by Richard Buell — April 23, 2011 at 3:24 am

  12. I was at the concert on Friday afternoon and find that John Ehrlich’s review echoes my thoughts exactly. The opening chorus, especially, was thrilling and set the tone for the rest of the afternoon, and the only quibble I have is that I wished the Passion had been performed without intermission. At the end of Part I, the audience was clearly not ready to go out and have coffee and a bathroom break. Applause was long in coming as everyone sat in contemplative silence, unwilling to break the spell of the music and the story. All in all, who can ask for more than Bach chorales sung and played with wonderful expression, heart-felt arias, expressive continuo playing, obligato winds of lovely fluidity and grace, and bassoon playing that was truly out of this world. If not everything was played according to current early music practice, it was nonetheless beautiful, and I for one left Symphony Hall grateful for the music and the company of so many who were as moved by it as I was.

    Comment by Karin Tate — April 23, 2011 at 10:14 am

  13. I stand corrected on Mr. Oliver. I hope he’s OK and I look forward to hearing him conduct his wonderful group again soon. I also am quite sure M. Pregardien is a wonderful singer, in fact, I really enjoyed aspects of his interpretation which was deeply humane and much less stiff than Ian Bostridge’s. It’s just a shame he wasn’t in good voice.

    Comment by Owlish — April 23, 2011 at 1:44 pm

  14. I heard the Friday performance, and found it both beautiful and moving. The fast tempos were surprising, and did not always work. But Meistro Suzuiki was a marvel to watch, as his body and hands urged the intensity of the performance ever forward. His work as continuo player was also uniformly dramatic. He knew what he wanted, indeed.

    Which is not to say he always got it. I agree that the first contralto aria was overbalanced by the oboes. It needn’t have been – he kept asking for less, but less did not come. Friends who attended both the Thursday and the Friday performance commented that the two could not be more different. Thursday was like a difficult dress rehearsal – Friday came powerfully together. The substitution of Bill Hite for two of the tenor arias gave M. Pregardien the confidence he needed to produce an emotionally wringing, beautifully phrased performance – in spite of his lingering illness. He and Hanno Muller-Bachmann are both tops in their field, and uniformly a delight to hear.

    Basically – this was a terrific performance. It could have been masterful if there had been adequate rehearsal. The BSO knows how to play Beethoven and Mahler. But Bach is very different. The phrasing, the lines, the colors, all must match the German text. Players familiar with the style and text know this – the BSO had to attemt to learn it in far too little time. They mostly tried hard. I was especially impressed that the strings managed to play (reasonably well) without vibrato. It is so wonderful to hear this clear tone for a change. John Ehrlich did not mention the fine job in some of the arias by the Associate Chocertmaster, Tamara Smirnova, playing on muted violin with vibrato only as an orniment, and then very tastefully. Same for Martha Babcock. I can only imagine that the Saturday performanc will be even better. The learning curve seems to be quite steep.

    Comment by David Griesinger — April 23, 2011 at 5:29 pm

  15. Thank you for the inspiring and encouraging review. As one of the singers, I can say that Friday’s performance definitely felt more “locked in” than Thursday’s, and tonight’s (Saturday’s) performance was clearly the best of the bunch. I hope many readers here had a chance to listen to that broadcast.

    I feel like in the early rehearsals, Suzuki rightfully and successfully beat the Verdi out of us and re-taught us how a baroque concert should sound. He unloaded extra phrasings, dynamics, specific word stresses, and other technical adjustments onto us in intense 4-5 hour rehearsals last Saturday and Sunday, an anomaly for our normal rehearsal calendar. Each change he made brought us closer to the right sound, and we could hear the improvement. The orchestra went through a similar rite of passage with his coaching. I think by the end of the performance week we found the right balance between that austerity and precision and the warmer, more lush sound which the TFC normally produces, to better balance with the orchestra.

    A few comments seem to decry the level of authenticity of the performance. I don’t think true authenticity was ever the goal. I’m guessing some people went into the concert expecting a sound to rival their favorite recordings. Having listened to both a Suzuki-directed performance and the more boisterous modern-pitch Helling recording as preparation, I ended up throwing both out as rehearsals started. It became clear that we would be making our own performance statement. The size of the orchestra and the size of the chorus were considerably less than what’s normally brought to the table for more 19th century works, but of course still much larger than Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan. It’s certainly tricky to find that fit between the authenticity which is Maestro Suzuki’s hallmark and the symphonic character of a BSO crew using modern instruments accompanied by a 60-person chorus. Personally, I was pleased with the end result.

    One more comment: the review and at least one commentator made remarks about “Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen.” I admit it was stunning when we first heard the speed we’d be attacking this at, but when we understood that Maestro wanted this movement to be playful, a brief oasis of gambling soldiers and rolling dice as almost black humor against the backdrop of the passion, it made total sense to me personally.

    It is a treat to read the comments from concertgoers (yes, even the less complimentary ones!), because it lets us experience the piece from the audience’s point of view as well as our own. We can tell when audience members are moved by the piece, and it’s a reward every time to share that together.

    Comment by Jeff Foley — April 24, 2011 at 12:18 am

  16. Thanks John Ehrlich for your insightful review.

    I attended this past evening’s performance which was a thrilling experience enjoyed by an attentive, quiet, audience who expressed their great enthusiasm at the conclusion. Before the concert, the line to the box office was endless.

    Maestro Suzuki’s masterful conducting was aptly described by Mr. Ehrlich.

    I do have reservations concerning the vocal soloists..only Christoph Prégardien, despite his cold was truly memorable. The Soprano, along her largely effortless singing (one serious mishap aside) has no diction…she could have been singing in pig-latin. The Alto’s voice didn’t carry well.

    The real “star” was the Tanglewood Festival chorus.

    The Bach “St. John Passion is a sublime masterpiece which should be repeated with frequency by the BSO in Symphony Hall, not just once in 30 years!

    Comment by Ed Burke — April 24, 2011 at 1:08 am

  17. It seems that the rough patches from Thursday (and perhaps Friday) more or less disappeared by the end of Saturday’s performance. At the beginning, there were a few ensemble issues: the continuo was well off on the right, miles from the upper strings. Perhaps if the chorus were on two wide risers instead of four, the orchestra could have been arranged somewhat differently in front.

    The chorus, too, started sounding a bit ragged and scrambled. And while Suzuki clearly feels this music in his bones, there were a few moments when he could have offered just a bit more discipline.

    Nevertheless– by the end of the evening, the balance and staging issues pretty much disappeared. The soloists were mostly very good, with .Jesus getting the lion’s share of the praise. (Who’d’a thought?) More to the point, Suzuki fostered an atmosphere on stage– and in the house– that created a truly intimate human drama with its full range of emotion. Not a perfect evening, but a very fine and satisfying one.

    Odd trivia point– when they last did the St. Matthew, the BSO strings employed a passel of baroque bows. Were these no longer available for the St. John, or did someone (Suzuki, the players) opt not to use them?

    Comment by Stephen Symchych — April 24, 2011 at 10:37 am

  18. Just re-read Jeff Foley’s comments from the inside, which are quite consistent with how it felt on the outside. While total result was not recording-quality cleanliness at all times, there was a real sense of everyone working with fidelity to the intent of the music, not a formulaic style cookbook. A lot of continuo players? Well, yes. A larger chorus than needed for a recording studio, but smaller than what might have been used in a large church? Who knows? Modern wind instruments? Sure.

    But who cares? It wasn’t a “Baroque” performance, neither was it a modern symphony and chorus trying to sound lovely. Rather it was a group of musicians experiencing the Passion and communicating it to a large audience at Symphony Hall, all working together with with confidence and joy.

    Comment by Stephen Symchych — April 24, 2011 at 10:55 am

  19. I was listening on Saturday over FM, not the best Passion I heard but I think it was an OK “concert” version of the Passion…

    I would like to make a note about very a different subject. I am sure the people not going to like, but it is what it is. Before the concert Mr. Suzuki remind the listeners in Boston about the Japanese recent tragedy and informed them that it will be a table in hall where the donation will be accepted. I am sorry but it was a bit tacky.

    In my view to use Boston Symphony megaphone and to solicit money from public domain to benefit private agenda of conductors is not right thing to do. Yes, in case of Mr. Suzuki his “private agenda” is well recognize and supported by everyone but what would it be if it was not the case? What would be if tomorrow let say some kind of star-pianist from mid-east would stop by to play with BSO and he would like to solicit donation to benefit some kind of reactionary Islamic militia group? How about a guest conductor expresses his view for whom to vote in 2012 or a guest-orchestra would call to support or sabotage the Cape Wind project? The point I would like to make is that BSO stage shall not be a platform for any other expressions other then musical expressions.

    Mr. Suzuki played his week and is leaving. There was no donation table to Japanese events in Symphony Hall before Mr. Suzuki visit and it will not be after he will be gone. Does it mean that we Bostonians do not care without the Mr. Suzuki reminding? I think it was bad taste and for Mr. Suzuki and for BSO to go into this direction. I do not blame Mr. Suzuki – he did what any person would do. I however would like to point out that in my view the event demonstrates (once again!) the inaptness of the BSO management who let it to happen. Nope, it did not ruin my day and I slept well. The nest week Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos will be leading BSO. Here I need to prepare money for the association that lobby Spain government to protect bulls during their corrida de toros. Simon Trp?eski, the pianist, is Macedonian, so let see what Balkan Peninsula has on cook book for agendas….

    Please keep the BSO state free from all of it; otherwise next you will be broadcasting makeup tips from sopranos….

    Comment by Romy The Cat — April 24, 2011 at 4:10 pm

  20. To pick up on Stephen Symchych’s second post, sometimes the Handel and Haydn Society seems underpowered for Symphony Hall, so it seems that Maestro Suzuki made a sensible decision on the size of chorus and orchestra for the hall (whatever balance problems between soloists and orchestra may have occurred).

    And I’m delighted to read Jeff Foley’s view that there was improvement through the series of performances. Musicians are normally well aware of how well they are doing — certainly Jeff’s blog indicates a high degree of such awareness. So I’m glad for him and all those involved that whatever shortcomings may have been there on Thursday were banished thereafter.

    I’m sorry I wasn’t able to listen on Saturday, and I hope WCRB will decide to rebroadcast it at I time when I can listen to it, or make it available over the web as they have done with “Israel in Egypt.”

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 24, 2011 at 10:29 pm

  21. I attended the Thursday night performance. Yes, there were a few problems. From my position (the Ozawa seat, center back row of the upper balcony), the alto was hard to hear in a few passages. Some of the tempos were brisker than expected. I would have preferred no intermission.

    Quibbles, all. It was a glorious evening. Wish I could have afforded tickets for all three performances.

    Suzuki began with a modest appeal for the quake victims of Japan, and a minute of silence. This was entirely appropriate for a concert of sacred music. Better if all such concerts began in silence.

    Comment by Brian Moriarty — April 25, 2011 at 9:53 am

  22. This afternoon at 2 p.m., if you go to http://www.wdr3.de/konzert/details/artikel/wasserfahrt.html and click on “WDR 3 hoeren” at the top right of the page, you’ll be all set for streaming a full length recital that Christoph Pregardien and Michael Gees gave on the 27th of March at the Schlosskapelle Juelich in Germany.

    Since WDR 3 doesn’t as yet archive its broadcasts — or so it seems — we’ll have to catch this one on the wing.

    Comment by Richard Buell — April 25, 2011 at 11:59 am

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