The Bach Collegium Japan are in their 24th year and have for at least a decade maintained their reputation as one of the most important ensembles specialising in baroque - and especially JS Bach’s – music. Although their original aim was to make Bach more familiar to the Japanese, the choir and orchestra soon found themselves in the international class of baroque ensembles. Like comparable European ensembles, they use replicas of instruments of Bach’s time and follow the performance practices of the period as far as they can be ascertained.
For many years, they have travelled the world and visited famous music festivals; it’s surprising this is their first New Zealand visit.
In the first of their two Wellington concerts, they performed the earlier of Bach’s two surviving Passion settings: this one based on St John’s Gospel. The concert filled the Michael Fowler Centre, and it realised the dreams of many who have been devoted to so-called “historically informed” performance styles to have the chance of hearing one of the world’s most polished and scholarly groups.
The St John Passion might be regarded by some writers as something of the poor relation to the more often performed St Matthew, but although there are structural weaknesses from the academic point of view, its greater dramatic impact and moments of great musical expressiveness compensate. In any case, this splendid performance displayed its qualities of greatness, not to say genius, to their best advantage.
The 19-piece orchestra of wonderful refinement and scrupulous dedication opened with the prelude, which cast a rare spiritual atmosphere, leading to the opening chorus from the superbly blended choir, which maintained an almost hypnotic hold on the performance.
The mere appearance of gut-stringed instruments played with convex baroque bows, the spikeless cellos, a seven-string viola da gamba, mellow wooden flutes, oboes and a bassoon, as well as the rare curved oboe da caccia, lent the concert special visual as well as aural character. Musical director Masaaki Suzuki conducted from a chamber organ keyboard while a harpsichord contributed to the textures as well.
The five named singers of international stature included Gerd Türk, an unparalleled exponent of the huge part of the Evangelist, which he sang with total involvement; wonderful counter-tenor Clint van der Linde, who made an impact with his aria Von den Stricken meiner Sünden; Peter Kooij, who sang the role of Jesus with imposing authority; and soprano Joanne Lunn with her anguished aria near the end, Zerfliesse, mein Herze. Peter’s grief-stricken cry, “Ach, mein Sinn”, was one of several from Chiyuki Urano, and numerous telling dialogue elements and deeply moving arias came from other, unidentified choir members.
We are used to smallish choirs in baroque music and this one of 18 voices was probably about the number at Bach’s disposal. Suzuki inspires his singers and instrumentalists with his scrupulous taste in musical ornaments, the rare sensitivity his gestures express and the unusual subtlety of dynamics and tempi with which he invests his performance; his success also flows from the unaffected energy and human warmth and affection he displays towards the music and his musicians.
ST JOHN PASSION, Bach Collegium Japan, conducted by Masaaki Suzuki, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, March 5, as part of the New Zealand Festival.