- Matthäuspassion (St. Matthew Passion), BWV 244
This ineffably moving performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion should not surprise anyone familiar with Masaaki Suzuki's superb Bach cantata series. The Japanese conductor's sweet-toned chorus and pliant period-instrument orchestra rival Europe's premier Early Music ensembles, and the sincerity and dedication of his interpretation is equaled only by Otto Klemperer's classic recording. Suzuki's approach to Bach's masterpiece couldn't be more different than Klemperer's, however. Where Klemperer is monumental, Suzuki is tender, confidential, and sometimes even delicate. Listen, for example, to the fragility of "Erbarme dich," the great alto aria in Part Two, sung here with innocent, boyish grace by countertenor Robin Blaze. Tempos are splendidly judged throughout, creating dramatic momentum without sacrificing any of the music's essential solemnity. This quality is especially striking in the chorales, which are gently sculpted in long, flowing phrases. Philippe Herreweghe's justly acclaimed 1999 Harmonia Mundi recording offers a much starrier lineup of soloists (led by Ian Bostridge and Andreas Scholl), but Suzuki's fine team of smaller, lighter voices increases the sense of intimacy. There's no question that this is an exceptional interpretation. Klemperer, Herreweghe, and most other conductors present the St. Matthew Passion as theater on a grand scale; Suzuki is more like a storyteller. And strangely enough, his subtlety and restraint actually intensify the music's dramatic impact. The BIS engineers have provided a warm, resonant ambiance that envelops the performance in a sonic halo. For all its quiet power and beauty, Suzuki's recording won't replace Klemperer's on my shelf, but it will take a proud spot by its side.