there is no lack of drama ★★★☆☆

The highlight of the Bach Society’s St Matthew Passion: conductor Shunske Sato plays the violin.Image Janko Dunker

How is Shunske doing? That question circles above the St Matthew Passion with which the Netherlands Bach Society is once again touring the country after two years of virus silence. Shunske, that is Shunske Sato (37), the Japanese-American violinist who has been leading the company since 2018. In the year that the Bach Society celebrates the centenary of its first Matthäus-performance – we write Good Friday 1922, Naarden – Sato experiences his baptism of fire as the conductor of a Bach Passion.

Although, conductor? On Sunday in the Tilburg Concert Hall, the choristers were indeed guided by both of Sato’s arms. But the vocal soloists saw a motionless leader. Now Sato picked up his violin and played with the orchestra. At the aria Aus Liebe, which was brought almost in meditation by the soprano Marie Luise Werneburg, he would sit down and listen again. Quite right, because she sang the notes in a disturbingly beautiful way.

With these kinds of experiments, Sato fits in perfectly with the hundred-year tradition of the Bach Society. What’s not with the Matthäus– and John Passion has been taken out. Sometimes it required a palace revolution, as with the switch to baroque instruments in 1983. Sometimes it caused scandal, as in 2005, when the choir was radically cut back. But there was invariably a reference to a historical source, which either suggested playing practice X or excluded playing practice Y.

It is therefore not impossible that Bach reached for his violin in Leipzig. Sato isn’t the first to explore the terrain either. Some passion conductors lead the troops from a harpsichord or organ. The English tenor Mark Padmore will sing and sign, as will be done on Thursday in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. And now that he was at it, Shunske Sato said beforehand in interviews, he immediately started doing some other experiments.

That’s how he wanted the r’s to roll authentically. For example, not ‘Báá-rabam!’ when the Jewish people cry out for the release of a murderer, but ‘Barrrr-abam!’ He also started playing with the tuning of instruments, so that crucial chords, although false, became more expressive. And he wanted to focus on the drama. A mob that ‘Lass ihn kreuzingen!’ yelling, you better believe.

null Image Janko Dunker

Image Janko Dunker

There was no lack of drama in Tilburg. Through the tenor Daniel Johannsen, the evangelist sometimes gave a poetic, sometimes riotous report of the fuss on Golgotha. Jesus did not hide his emotions either, in a rather operatic approach by the bass Dominik Wörner. But rolling r’s? You had to suspect them in a room where the sound lingered too much on the stage. And false, expressive chords? Hopefully the Radio 4 microphones will pick them up later in Rotterdam.

But indeed: the basses and tenors kicked the ‘Lass ihn kreuzigen!’ like testosterone bombs. Unfortunately, the altos and sopranos perished in the noise. At other times too you thought: Sato can rummage around in the choir director’s toolbox a little longer. In the boxes, for example, with rhythmically bouncing consonants, or those of the stealthy flashing in-between voice.

The tension of the multitasker sometimes crumbled. But still, the chorales that Bach folded around church hymns like O Haupt full Blut und Wunden eloquently kneaded Sato down to the decimal point. With the violins he put a mystical glow around Jesus’ words. Alex Baker’s viola da gamba graced the aria Come on, süsses Kreuz unusually intense. But that one time when Sato reached for his violin as a soloist was the pinnacle of the whole Matthäus

It happened in the aria Gebt mir meinem Jesu wiederwho speaks of blood money and regrets as hairs on the head. Flame, rats, there was a liberated violinist chasing over the strings. Suddenly nothing stood in the way between the goosebumps and Shunske Sato.

Fog around the Matthäus

How and when Bach performed his first in Leipzig St Matthew Passion has led: no one puts his hand in the fire for it. The Netherlands Bach Society suspects that the premiere took place in 1727, but it could just as well have been one of the surrounding years. There is fog around almost everything. Where Bach’s musicians sat and stood: a guess. Which instruments he used: partly speculation. How he handed out his orders: what the madman will pay for it. The score in Bach’s handwriting, which dates from 1736, also leaves enough room for conductors to St Matthew Passion to bend them.

Next year at the Bach Society that will be Masato Suzuki. This keyboard player was born in The Hague in 1981, the son of Masaaki Suzuki, the acclaimed leader of the Bach Collegium Japan.

JS Bach: St Matthew Passion

By the Netherlands Bach Society and Kampen Boys Choir conducted by Shunske Sato.


3/4, Schouwburg Concert Hall, Tilburg.

Tour until 16/4. NPO Radio 4, 14/4, 8 p.m.

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