On 6 of March 2020, Bach Collegium Japan began their long-awaited 30th anniversary tour of Europe with a performance of Bach's St John Passion in Katowice, Poland. The same week Europe was becoming aware of the very stark reality of the threat posed by the new Corona virus, Covid-19. Consequently, as Masaaki Suzuki and his ensemble went on to perform in Dublin and then London, concert halls across Europe were closing down and the remaining tour dates were cancelled. Before making their return to Japan, the BCJ agreed with the Kölner Philharmonie to go ahead with the concert that had been planned, in the form of a live streaming without an audience. This meant that the ensemble had time on their hands, and the idea was born to use it for making a recording.
Having received permission to use the hall of the Philharmonie for the recording, Bach Collegium Japan and BIS jointly decided to go ahead with the idea, and during a few hectic hours arrangements were made for a recording team to come to Cologne. Over the next few days, Suzuki, the BCJ and a team of soloists headed by James Gilchrist as the Evangelist, recorded Bach's rendering of the Passion of Christ, finishing just ahead of complete lockdown. Their efforts are now available as a testimony not only to the drama of Bach's score, but also to the urgency of a week when the world changed.
‘The spread of the virus created an urgency and energy that rendered this a very dramatic performance’, he continues. ‘The music itself has such incredible power of course, and in this situation, it was somehow doubled. Looking back, it was all like a miracle, and even now it seems like a dream. The tension of the whole experience, combined with the drama of the St John Passion, will stay in our minds forever.’ - Masaako Suzuki
Here we have a reading that feels as if, deep in the psyche of the performers, they know this is all happening close to the wire. Gilchrist is again on masterly form, risking pinpoint precision for graphic description in a way that makes the experience feel ‘live’ in every respect. Suzuki takes us as co-travellers in a search of faith, not necessarily assuming us all as believers.
– Gramophone (Awards Issue, 2020)
Despite the hurried nature of the production, engineering is top-notch, and even if the bass is more pronounced this time around, there is an ideal blend of analytical clarity and warmth, both on SACD and regular stereo. No single interpretation can capture every aspect of this monumental music. But Suzuki’s latest is his finest, and belongs in the library of anyone who loves this work – urgently recommended.
– Classical CD Review