Bach: St. John Passion (1749 version, plus three arias from the 1725 version) - Ingrid Schmithüsen, Yoshie Hida (sops); Yoshikazu Mera (cntrtnr); Gerd Türk, Makoto Sakurada (tens); Chiyuki Urano, Peter Kooij (basses); Bach Collegium Japan/ Masaaki Suzuki BIS CD-921/922 (two discs: 126 minutes: DDD) Text and translations included.

Reviewed by Bernard D. Sherman; reprinted (and slightly expanded) from Gramophone Early Music, Summer, 1999. Click here for an essay I did on Masaaki Suzuki for the New York Times.


From the opening bars of the St. John Passion, Masaaki Suzuki shows exceptional concern for drawing feeling and religious meaning from the notes.

Consider, for example, his chorales. Virtually all period-instrument conductors take the different chorales at different speeds, but Suzuki's range of tempos is a bit wider than usual. And virtually all such conductors dramatize chorale texts (like the words "mocked, derided, and spat upon" in "Christus, der uns selig macht"), but Suzuki dramatizes them a bit more.

To consider a more technical issue, directors usually treat chorale fermatas consistently, but Suzuki holds them at varying lengths. Many early-music conductors essentially ignore these fermatas; alternatively, Kenneth Slowik holds them for more beats than written, as Bach probably did. (At least as I read the evidence; click here for an explanation.) But it seems that Suzuki extends fermatas for multiple beats only when he feels that doing so conveys meaning, as in the word 'love' in the first chorale. Is this approach historically plausible? I doubt it, although it is possible; but history was probably not Suzuki's central motivation. Not that it should have been. Historical questions aside, Suzuki's chorales equal those of Slowik as the most compelling I have heard.

In the so-called turbae, Suzuki again takes a slightly wider range of tempos than most of his colleagues. Nothing in Bach's notation suggests the rapid speeds that almost all conductors (including Suzuki) take in these biblical choruses, but again, Suzuki seeks intensity, variety, and characterization.

To a large degree he attains it. One can hear this even in minor roles: listen, for example, to the 'Maid' in No. 10, sung by Yoshie Hida. On few other recordings does her line sound so accusatorial. The principal agonists are also responsive, and to theology as well as to drama. In the opening set of recitatives, for example, the Jesus, Chiyuki Urano, gives unusual emphasis to the words 'Ich bin's' (I am he) - no doubt to underline the metaphysical implications of the utterance. Urano is generally satisfactory, if not first-rank. But the Peter/Pilate (Peter Kooij) and Evangelist (Gerd Türk) are unsurpassed in my experience, bringing vivid insight and perfect style to their parts. The solo team is strong in general, as is the chorus.

The 1749 version of the St. John Passion, used here, is scored for "dual accompaniment" - that is, for both harpsichord and organ in the continuo. Suzuki, in his search for meaning, adds an extra touch: he uses the harpsichord alone to accompany the Evangelist, adding the organ when Jesus is speaking. Imaginative though this nuance may seem, it actually represents a return to a well-known practice of the pre-early music mainstream. There is, of course, no historical basis for it, but I hope it is clear by now that the same is true of much "historical" performance - and that history shouldn't be our foremost criterion in judging even performances with historical aspirations.

Critics might object to Suzuki's choice of the 1749 version, since it lacks a few subtleties of text-setting and scoring found in other versions. Collectors should also own a recording of the hybrid Neue Bach-Ausgabe version - I recommend the superb Slowik (which further lets one construct the 1725 version using CD programming), with Kuijken a weightier alternative. Suzuki, however, makes an excellent first choice regardless of the version one prefers. The execution and recorded sound are outstanding, and the discs include three arias from 1725 as a bonus. But it is the interpretive vision that gives this performance its real distinction.

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Why I Think Fermatas Were Held in Bach Chorales

At the end of each phrase in the typical Bach chorale, the last note is under a fermata. How did Bach want these final notes performed?

Most Bach performers (early-music or mainstream) believe that the fermatas should barely be acknowledged. These performers do not hold the fermatas longer than their written note value. But a few early-music maestros, notably Joshua Rifkin, Kenneth Slowik, and Rene Jacobs, have come to the opposite conclusion. They hold these fermata-notes for about three times their written value. A good case can be made for their approach.

For one thing, Robert Marshall's monumental study The Compositional Process of J. S. Bach shows that in the final chorale of BWV 65 the rebarring in a second draft makes sense only if the note under the fermata is to be held longer than its written value.

Also, as Joshua Rifkin points out in a forthcoming publication, the chorales that Bach used in his sacred works were, of course, used by numerous other German composers, but many of these composers notated the chorales differently than Bach did. Telemann and Graun, among many others, did not use fermatas at the ends of the phrases. Instead, where Bach wrote fermatas, these other composers wrote out three beats. Specifically, they wrote out the phrase-ending notes at twice the value of the prevailing motion (a whole note, when the prevailing value is half notes, or a half note when it is quarter notes), followed by a written-out rest of a single note. Bach uses the same notation, by the way, in a chorale he added to a St. Mark Passion he attributed to Reinhard Keiser.

It is possible that Bach notated most of his chorales differently from his contemporaries because he performed them differently. But it is unlikely. These were traditional sacred works, and Bach probably did not perform them in a radical way. A more plausible explanation, Rifkin points out, is that Bach used fermatas to avoid the notational mess that is caused by writing out these final notes with two extra beats; the extra beats throw off the normal barring of the tune. It is probable, then, that he held these notes-under-fermatas for about two beats followed by an extra beat of rest--just as is suggested by the notation of many other composers.

I certainly don't want to dismiss conductors who take other approaches, as I hope is obvious from my praise for Suzuki's chorales. But it is always interesting to observe how a belief about performance practice that becomes an orthodoxy among historical performers may lack definitive historical support. --Bernard D. Sherman

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