When, in 1829, the brilliant 20-year-old conductor Felix Mendelssohn went far, far out on a limb to conduct the centennial revival of J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion, he set a steamroller in motion. What would Bach have thought of all the festivals, anniversaries, recorded cycles, biographies, and essays since then? And how astonished both Bach and Mendelssohn would be to learn that today's most talked-about recordings of Bach's landmark choral repertoire are the work of a native of Kobe, Japan.
Masaaki Suzuki and the chorus and period-instrument orchestra of Bach Collegium Japan make their U.S. debut next month at Carnegie Hall with the St. Matthew Passion. This will be their eighth international tour: They have been six times to Europe and twice to Israel. Suzuki does not know what to expect from American audiences, but he has enjoyed his experiences with the frank and direct response of European fans. "They are very individual in their reactions, very bold," he says. "Japanese people are more hesitant to express their thoughts. In a good sense, they are discreet. But sometimes they are too cautious‹even our critics!‹about judging the performance good or bad. This is the result of education. In Japan we always say, 'The nail that protrudes gets hit.' It is a characteristic of the island mind-set. The sea isolates you; you must live together and avoid confrontation. This is a very wrong tradition, very bad." Are many Japanese people aware that this might be a bad thing? Suzuki smiles. "They are trying to think it is bad, but they don't."
The language-and-culture chasm separating 21st-century Japan from baroque Germany might overwhelm a lesser mortal than Suzuki. Wise, friendly, and humorous, Suzuki conducts himself in a pleasant, unassuming manner that carries no hint of self-consciousness. He is unusually and unfashionably frank about his Christian point of view in approaching the music of Bach, and this has caused some astonishment from critics prepared to fault the approach as parochial. "It is not necessary to be religious," he has said, "to understand Bach. But you have to understand where the music is coming from and the sacred function it originally served."
Suzuki first came to an awareness of Bach's music through the organ works. A member of Japan's tiny Christian minority, Suzuki began working as a church organist at age 12. After graduating from Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music, he went to Amsterdam for further studies with famed Bach scholar Ton Koopman, and went on to win prizes for organ and harpsichord at the Vlaanderen Festival in Bruges, Belgium. He still performs regularly on both instruments, as regular organist in the Christian Reformed Church (founded by American missionaries) in Kobe, and in frequent concerts as harpsichord soloist. Indeed, he has begun recording all of Bach's harpsichord repertoire for Sweden's BIS label.
Conducting in Kobe, Osaka, and Tokyo led to the founding of Bach Collegium Japan in 1990. In 1995 the group began recording the complete cantatas of Bach, a project that has earned Suzuki and his forces nearly universal acclaim.
The freshness and lucidity of BCJ's interpretations owe a great deal to Suzuki's relentless emphasis on text. Every phrase‹vocal and orchestral‹is meticulously dissected, discussed, and shaped according to its prosody, affect, and specific meaning. Suzuki admits it costs a great deal of rehearsal time. He himself has been credited with speaking accentless German, a claim he rejects as exaggerated. Does he employ a language coach? "We used a coach during the recording of the St. Matthew [in 1999]," he remarks. "But all the producers were from Germany; if you have two Germans, they fight all the time about pronunciation. At least half of our soloist group was from Germany. We had plenty of opinions."
Apart from language, the music itself poses complications. Suzuki observes that the structures in Bach's music do not exist in Japanese music. Bach's counterpoint, he says, is "strictly regulated: a kind of puzzle. This way of thinking does not exist in Japanese traditional music. We always say, 'When you chase two rabbits, you don't get either of them.' In four-voice polyphony, you must chase four rabbits‹a very difficult concept for Japanese people."
Yet Japanese audiences continue to be drawn irresistibly to the music of Bach, a fact attested to by BCJ's large following at home. Suzuki believes the very complexity of the music is part of the attraction. "The structures are solid and very appealing," he notes. "Bach's music is sometimes complicated. But if you go into the music, you find that the problems are always soluble. If you pursue a question, you always get the answer. The deeper you go, the more you understand. And always there is a deeper field behind it‹a huge forest. Bach's musical language is common to all kinds of people."
The narrative of the St. Matthew Passion can pose problems for non-Christians. "It is quite difficult for them to understand what is going on," says Suzuki. "Everyone understands the concept of the sin of humankind. But the Japanese understanding is that it can be solved after death‹just thrown away. It is striking to them that this sin must be resolved and compensated by Jesus Christ." Other listeners may respond to the simple human drama, the tragedy of the work. "There are many ways of understanding this story," Suzuki says. "The message of the St. Matthew Passion emphasizes the love of God: that Jesus came to earth because of God's love. This idea of sin and love does exist in the Buddhist way of thinking."
Suzuki once referred to the St. Matthew Passion, in passing, as the greatest of Bach's works. Does he still feel this way? "Well," he says with a smile, "it's the longest." But he regards both the B-Minor Mass and the St. John Passion as its equals, though the tone of the St. John is very different. "The St. John Passion speaks more about the grandeur of God," he explains, "the distance between God and humankind. There is much emphasis on contrast: light and darkness, freedom and captivity. It is God's will that sent Jesus to this world to resolve sin." By contrast, the St. Matthew Passion seems to bring God a bit closer with its message of love and sacrifice. "There was much influence from the Lutheran Pietist scholars in Germany at this time, an emphasis on meditation, prayer, and preparation for union with God."
Does Suzuki feel a personal kinship down the ages with the Cantor of Leipzig? "Gustav Leonhardt [the Dutch harpsichordist and Bach scholar] was asked the same question once: 'Are you interested in the character of Bach personally?'" the conductor says. "Leonhardt replied: 'He is dead.' He was saying, 'We never met,' you see. But I feel an integrated relationship with Bach's music. Religion is the basis of my life. Music is part of my life. And Bach is telling me something every day through his music."
Marcia Young is a New York-based music journalist. She can be heard giving on-air commentary over Vista, the Sirius chamber-music channel.