The extraordinary story behind a new St John Passion recording

How, as lockdown laws closed studios and borders, Bach Collegium Japan managed to capture both Bach's masterpiece and a unique moment in time

Bach Collegium Japan, conducted by Masaaki Suzuki, making a unique musical record (photo: Bach Collegium Japan)
Bach Collegium Japan, conducted by Masaaki Suzuki, making a unique musical record (photo: Bach Collegium Japan)

The closure of concert hall and studios due to the coronavirus, and the worldwide restrictions on travel, brought a complete halt to most recording activity. But just as these lockdown laws were being implemented, Bach Collegium Japan (BCJ) instead found themselves making a new recording which will serve as a unique and powerful musical record of that unprecedented point in history.

In March, BCJ had been marking its 30th anniversary with a tour. It was as they arrived in Cologne that they learned that the tour’s seven remaining performances had been cancelled: the concert at Kölner Philharmonie was still held however, but live-streamed from an empty hall.

But rather than give up and go home immediately, BCJ instead decided to make the most of having the musicians gathered, to record Bach’s St John Passion.

Support was offered by the Kölner Philharmonie, costs were underwritten by the group’s label BIS, and equipment, an engineer and a producer were found. Time, however, was of the essence. The sections requiring the largest forces were recorded first, and as the maximum number of people who could legally gather was reduced, sessions shrank accordingly. Meanwhile, BCJ arranged for musicians to gradually return to their home countries. It took four days – and almost wasn’t finished.

‘On the final day of the recording session — by then, most of the restaurants in the hotel and many public buildings were closed — the police came into the hall and demanded that we should leave immediately and that the building should be closed,’ remembers BCJ conductor and founder Masaaki Suzuki. ‘The Intendant and the stage manager explained to them that we were recording and that we were almost finished. Fortunately, it turned out that one of the policemen had watched our live stream, so they allowed us one hour to complete the recording.’

‘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.’

BCJ’s recording will be released in September on BIS (October in the UK). It’s unlikely that any other classical recording will so poignantly embody the impact those events of three months ago had on artists, audiences and society.

Bach Collegium Japan's remarkable recording of Bach's St Matthew Passion was Gramophone's Recording of the Month in our April issue: read review

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