What would Bach do?
That was my reaction to last night’s concert—the Bach Collegium Japan’s performance of the St. Matthew Passion. Even though I’m afraid I was left with more questions than answers, this performance was certainly memorable. The fact is that here we were, nearly 300 years after the date of the work’s composition, and in the church that Bach conceived and performed it — and I had to wonder what Bach would think.
I’m sure that Bach would be absolutely astounded to learn that a man from a completely foreign culture (Masaaki Suzuki) would conduct his music 300 years later, and receive the highest honor for doing so. Yesterday afternoon, Suzuki received the City of Leipzig medal. Suzuki assembled a stellar international cast whose names were very familiar to us: Hana Blazikova, Robin Blaze, Gerd Türk, and Peter Kooij, and we delighted in their performance. We heard Blazikova, Türk and Kooij in Valparaiso, Indiana, when Suzuki conducted the B-Minor Mass, and I couldn’t help but think back to that performance and all its happy memories.
But there were some surprises. The tempos that Suzuki took were faster than any we had heard on any recordings—including Suzuki’s own— and I think last night’s performance must have beat the world’s record for the shortest St. Matthew! Bach on steroids? The chorales seemed especially quick, and the soloists, both vocal and instrumental, surely must be super-human to perform this music this fast!
We read in the program that Bach’s first version of the piece was different from the one with which we were familiar. Apparently this was a reconstruction of the 1729 version, rather than the beloved 1736 version in Bach’s own hand. The first half did not end with “O Mensch bewein,” but was replaced by a chorale. The “Komm süsses Kreuz” was played not by gamba but by lute. Another big change was “Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin” which was sung by a bass rather the traditional alto. In this version, there was a single continuo complement, unlike the familiar double one.
Suzuki certainly paid heed to the double choir-double orchestra aspect of the piece, but from where we were sitting, we couldn’t discern very much antiphonal effect because of the close proximity of the two choirs and orchestras. Of course, where else but in Europe would you pay 70 euros each for seats behind a pillar, as we did? Now when Bach performed the piece, the second group was located in the now non-existent swallow’s nest.
Still, to be in Bach’s church and to hear his music performed knowing he is buried in front of the altar and looking down at us is quite amazing. It is an experience I will long remember.