A miracle in Cologne: how one world-class classical outfit beat the pandemic

Members of the Bach Collegium talk to Ivan Hewett about turning the pandemic into a positive

 Passion play: the musicians made their new CD in an empty hall in Cologne
 Passion play: the musicians made their new CD in an empty hall in Cologne

Amid the scorched-earth musical landscape of cancelled festivals, near-bankrupt orchestras and freelance musicians’ lives ruined, there are a few happy stories of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. One of the most dramatic happened in mid-March as the pandemic took hold. A European concert tour by one of the world’s great “early music” orchestras and choirs, the Tokyo-based Bach Collegium Japan, collapsed halfway through, as the lockdown took hold. But out of the collapse came something totally unforeseen: their new recording of one of the greatest of all sacred works, the St John Passion by J S Bach.

The story began in London, where the group had travelled to perform the piece at the Barbican. “After the concert we received the news that our next date in Lyon had been cancelled, but it seemed the German concerts could still go ahead,” recalls the group’s harpsichordist, Masato Suzuki, the son of the group’s founder Masaaki Suzuki and soon-to-be director of the group. “So we flew to Cologne. But as we were rehearsing new rules were constantly being announced by the federal government, which reduced still further the maximum audience numbers, and eventually the director of the concert hall told us the concert could not go ahead.”

So it seemed the five solo singers, 21 chorus members and 21 orchestral players had just made an expensive trip to Germany for nothing. But then the hall’s director, Louwrens Langevoort, suggested the group perform a live-streamed concert in the empty hall. From here, the idea 
of actually recording a CD of the 
St John Passion was devised, too.

However, it proved to be a logistical nightmare. Top-quality recording equipment and the best sound engineers had to be found. Fortunately, the group’s Swedish record company BIS agreed to take on the organisation and considerable expense involved. “I got this very panicky call from Masaaki asking us to help,” says Robert von Bahr, the company’s chief executive, “and I only hesitated for half a second, because I have total faith in them. They are absolute world leaders in what they do and always deliver top-quality performances, and we have made more than a hundred recordings together.

“Also I knew the group’s founder, Masaaki Suzuki, was retiring, so this would be our last chance to record the piece with him as director. But I was bloody nervous, because so much could go wrong.” He was right. Any of the performers could fall ill, and the city government could enforce a total lockdown at any moment, which would shut down the recording instantly.

Silver lining: the empty Kölner Philharmonie put to good use

Bahr was able to call on seasoned producer Martin Sauer, who was twiddling his thumbs in Paris because a recording project had been cancelled. “Sometimes a pandemic can work in your favour,” says Bahr. “There were no flights to Cologne so he threw himself in his car and just drove. He was in such a hurry he forgot to pack any clothes and had to buy a new set when he arrived.”

As soon as Sauer and the recording gear arrived, the recording process began. Masaaki recalls the atmosphere was quite tense at times. “People did not want to catch the virus, and they were worried about getting home. We were listening to the news and every hour there was an announcement about a border closing or flights cancelled. I remember our soprano, Hana Blažíková, was desperate to get back to the Czech Republic so we did all the numbers with her first, and then we did the big-scale pieces before the small ones, so some people could be released.”

James Gilchrist, the tenor, found performing in an empty hall a deeply bizarre experience. “The total silence without an audience felt very strange, and made me realise how desperate I am to perform in front of live audiences again.”

By the last day only a handful of performers were needed to record the Passion’s intimate arias and dialogues – and then came a final hurdle. A passing policeman noticed the hall was busy at a time when it should have been in lockdown, and demanded the session be stopped immediately. “Fortunately, he had seen the streamed concert two nights before, and knew who we were,” says Masato Suzuki. “When we explained the situation he allowed us one more hour. And that was enough to finish everything.”

How does he feel looking back at this madly intense time? “Well, I do not use this word lightly, but I think it was a miracle that the recording happened at all.” His father agrees. “I think there is something special about the recording, an intense quality that came out of those strange circumstances.”

The recording of Bach’s St John Passion by the Bach Collegium Japan (dir. Masaaki Suzuki) will be released on the BIS label on Oct 2