Bach’s Matthäus-Passion was probably first performed in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig almost three hundred years ago – and I guess it must feel like a great responsibility to perform it in a church where the name of Johann Sebastian Bach is a sacred thing. The main item of this years Bachfest Leipzig was precisely a performance of this work’s early version – with the Bach Collegium Japan under its conductor Masaaki Suzuki, whose ongoing series of recording of Bach cantatas is rated among the best.
Differently from many concerts held in church, the musicians were not placed towards the altar, but in the choir loft, where they are supposed to be during services in the church. This made for a neck-challenging experience for almost everyone in the church, other those who payed for very expensive tickets… in the choir loft. From my place, I could see some soloists, the conductor, one or two violinists and the Thomaner boys who sang the “soprano in ripieno” in the opening number. In aural terms, truth be said, it all made very little difference – I could hear everything with immediacy. I have never heard any concert in the Thomaskirche before and cannot say where the conductor choices end and where the peculiarities of the building’s acoustics begin. As it was, the sound was extremely warm – with all its advantages (a golden enveloping orchestral sound) and disadvantages (ensembles could become a bit tangled). At first I thought that the conductor rather considerate tempo for the opening number, for instance, was his adaptation to the church’s acoustic, but then I’ve checked his recording – and it was basically the same pulse, which evokes rather a reverential than dance-like approach to the triple-tempo (I can see some of my 15 or 16 readers, “as it should be”). As a matter of fact, the whole performance suggested a preference for smooth rather than sharply defined articulation. If that had been related to a fervid rather than detached approach to interpretation, that could have concurred to an intense interpretation à la Gardiner, but, no, the impression here was of a non-approach.
I may be wrong, but some nervousness might explain all that. The difficult obligato in Gibt mir meinen Jesum wieder was not immaculate in tuning, the whole of Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand was a bit untidy, woodwind in Mache dich was not really precise (the tempo was a bit on the fast side too). The second part is indeed more “dramatic” than the first one, but I did believe that everybody seemed to be more engaged in it. In the tenor aria Geduld, wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen, the gamba and the theorbo did produce “stinging” sounds, Erbarme dich had an almost “Romantic” atmosphere (the solo violin sometimes could sound a bit Tchaikovskian for some tastes). Speaking of theorbo, I had the impression that the theorbo was so loud that it made us difficult to hear the gamba in the tenor aria, for example . There is a passionate discussion about the theorbo in the continuo in Bach’s religious works and I really am not knowledgeable enough to take part in it, but, well, I don’t like it. I’ve checked Harnoncourt’s last recording, Leonhardt’s and McCreesh’s and none of them seem to buy the idea. Maybe because they are not using the early edition – so I’ve checked Müller-Brühl (who’s supposed to use it) and the theorbo doesn’t appear with the same assiduity as last evening. In Erbarme dich, I found it even distracting – to my taste, it brought a certain gentleness, the wrong sort of intimacy (the one you’d find in Handel’s O sleep, why dost thou leave me? from Semele). But, de gustibus. Mr. Suzuki certainly knows better.
If I found some gauche moments in the orchestra, I found none in the chorus, who sang with amazing clarity and purpose. My impression of nervousness applies to some of this evening’s singers too. Not the sopranos – Johanette Zomer’s boyish soprano is exactly what a period-practice radical would want in this music. I particularly prefer Hana Blazikova’s bell-toned voice, which sustained Aus Liebe with real purity of line. Robin Blaze has a very clear high register too, but he was a bit lost around the break and the problem seemed to get worse during the evening. Japanese countertenor Hiroya Aoki was clearly uneasy and uncertain of pitch. Gerd Türk is a vivid narrator and guided the audience as the Evangelist with amazing engagement and absolute sense of style. It is not an easy task to tackle the arias too – his Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen was a bit strained, while Satoshi Mizukoshi – even if the result was a bit stiff – displayed a far freer and more dulcet tenor in Geduld. The now veteran Bachian Peter Kooij (who sang Jesus and some of the arias) sounds a bit rusty now and was not very comfortable with his low notes either, but in any case sang with more authority than Dominik Wörner, who does have the right voice for this music, but left something to be desired in intonation and warmth.