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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Matthew Passion BWV 244
(c. 1742)
Marcus Ullmann (tenor) – Evangelist; Klaus Mertens (bass-baritone) – JesusAnna Korondi (soprano); Anke Vondung (alto); Werner Güra (tenor); Hans Christoph Begemann (bass)
Neubeuern Choral Association, Tölz Boys Choir, KlangVerwaltung Orchestra/Enoch zu Guttenberg
rec. information not currently available. ca. 2003 with interview
FARAO B108035 [3 CDs: 65:10 + 23:51 + 69:38]

 

 

 

 

 


Johann Sebastian BACH
(1685-1750)
Matthew Passion BWV 244
(c. 1742)
Nicholas Mulroy (tenor) – Evangelist; Matthew Brook (bass-baritone) – Jesus; Susan Hamilton (soprano); Cecilia Osmond (soprano); Clare Wilkinson (alto); Annie Gill (alto); Malcolm Bennett (tenor); Brian Bannatyne-Scott (bass)
Dunedin Consort and Players/John Butt
rec. Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, UK, 3-6 September 2007
LINN RECORDS CKD313 [3 CDs: 67:41 + 50:24 + 43:11]

Experience Classicsonline

Last year, two very remarkable recordings of the Matthew Passion have come across my desk — and remarkable in very different ways. There is the strict one voice per part (OVPP) 1742 “final performing version” Matthew Passion with John Butt and the Dunedin Consort & Players (Linn) and then the “maverick” Matthew Passion of Enoch zu Guttenberg with his Choral Society Neubeuern and KlangVerwaltung Orchestra (Farao).
 
John Butt’s is not the first Matthew Passion that uses OVPP — Paul McCreesh has already done that. But it is the first one to use the (ca.)1742 version that Bach presumably used in his last performance of the “­big Passion” as Bach always referred to it. On the OVPP question: The sophisticated conjecture about Bach having, or even wanting, just one voice per part in his Matthew Passion can be followed in the writings of Joshua Rifkin. I have not yet read an argument (either pro- or contra-OVPP) that didn’t willfully ignore information suggesting the opposite from their held beliefs, or massage the evidence to necessarily support their side when it might support it possibly at best. I find it curious, though, that Bach should have wanted the big Passion” sung with one voice per part (OVPP), while the St. John Passion’s surviving performing material indicates at least two voices per part.
 
Ultimately I don’t care — as long as the performance is enjoyable or revealing. The Historically Informed Performance movement has brought us many such performances and should be welcomed by all music lovers with open arms. As long as its ‘extreme fringes’ don’t become the new orthodox, inflexible standard by which to perform Bach (or all baroque music) which would leave some of the greatest music ever written the prerogative of specialist groups, HIP only enriches our musical experience. John Butt notably, laudably states precisely that in his generally incisive liner notes: “Trying to follow Bach’s vocal scoring and the instrumentation of his last performance is not done in the name of a sort of pious literalism that condemns every other approach to the realm of inauthenticity… [H]istorical details might begin to seem rather trivial if the performance reveals this work to provide a musical experience that is almost on the threshold of what is emotionally bearable.” He legitimately hopes that his performance provides that experience, but the ambition is expertly clad in humility.
 
 
Upon first listening, the Dunedin Matthew Passion did precisely what John Butt must have set out to achieve. Hugely impressive for its combination of thrust and clarity, the invigorating play of the Dunedin Consort & Players manage to have instrumental and vocal strands appear where all-too often they become part of a greater ‘sound’. This is nouvelle cuisine compared the cuisine classique of decades past or the musical curry that those conductors have made of the Matthew Passion, who performed in the tradition of the massive oratorios. Outstanding, apart from the ever lively playing, are also the superb basses (a sonorous, richly wonderful Jesus in Matthew Brook, Brian Bannatyne-Scott who is simply terrific in “Gerne will ich mich bequemen”, Roderick Bryce who makes Judas rather appealing), and Evangelist Nicholas Mulroy — eminently worth hearing.
 
Unfortunately, there are also a significant amount of shortcomings that become increasingly obvious with repeat listening. For one, the female voices are less pleasant than the male, notable in the opening “chorus” where they stand out unpleasantly. Particularly unpleasant is alto Clare Wilkinson. Right off the bat the first “kla-a-a-a-a-gen” (note esp. bar 24) is most unfortunate sounding. Soprano I Susan Hamilton is better, but sounds — for better or worse — like a treble most of the time. The interpolating “Wen, Wie, Was, Wohin?” questions from the second choir sound more like pecked interruptions than questions that stipulate the answer of the first choir.
 
Jesus’ aria “Trinket alle daraus; das ist mein Blut” is fleet, and has the dance-y touch to it that makes this performance so airy, but at the cost of being less touching than it could be. There are also the odd moments of funny accentuation in the Butt recording — for example “Aber nicht wie ich WILL, sondern wie du WILLST” (instead of “Aber nicht wie ICH will, sondern wie DU willst”). But then “Welchen ich kuessen werde, der ists!” is done extremely well — both as regards the pronunciation and the way it is spoken, more than sung. The orchestra and combined voices in “Sind Blitze, sind Donner…” manage for something that is terribly exhilarating, as long as it is not dissected. Here, like in many parts of this performance, the whole becomes much more than the sum of its parts, simply because a few of the parts taken on their own are rather un-lovely. Ironically the Butt-Passion, offering so much focus and detail, moves from “interesting” to splendid only once you take the focus away from it. In that sense, ‘just listening to it’ is a far greater joy than reviewing it, score in hand. If you don’t get stuck quibbling on these various issues (chances are you won’t on hearing it the first few times), the surprising and fresh sweep of the opening carries you with the performance far into part one.
 
The musical difference of the 1742 version to BWV 244 is insignificant (compared to BWV 244b or some of the different St.John Passion versions). The difference in scoring (harpsichord instead of organ as the basso continuo instrument for the second choir — in any case a change more likely born out of necessity than desire) has been replicated in plenty other recordings, HIP and non-HIP alike. The recording quality and sound of this Linn disc is, as usual with this audiophile label, stupendous.
 
On my “Easter Pilgrimage” last year, I heard Enoch zu Guttenberg’s Matthew Passion on the Munich leg of the tour. Guttenberg and his Neubeuern Choir are a local musical force, much loved and admired in the region. His pick-up band, which he coyly named “SoundAdministration Orchestra”, consists of members of the best European orchestras (Berlin Philharmonic, Concertgebouw, et al.) and local players — including soloists from the Munich Philharmonic and the Rosamunde String Quartet. Guttenberg’s performance of the Matthew Passion around Easter are an institution, known to be consistently individual, ‘unique’ interpretations. When I sat in the Philharmonic Hall on Good Friday to listen to what was my fourth Matthew Passion in six days, I spectacularly failed to get it.
 
Part of the problem: I listened lazily. I didn’t participate; I simply wanted to let the music do the work of enthralling me. A miscalculation, as it turned out, because as I did not bother with the text, the musical choices of Guttenberg ended up annoying me to no end. Unable or unwilling to put them in context, I found the interpretation awkward, the performance disappointed me, and that disappointment angered me.
 
A few weeks after Easter I was sent the Guttenberg 2003 recording (apparently just now issued or re-issued outside Germany by Farao and not the same performance reviewed by Peter Quantrill on DVD here). Knowing several expert ears to be very fond of Guttenberg’s very particular interpretation, I had the chance to give it another try, to give it its due time, respect, and engagement. That made all the difference.
 
Guttenberg’s version might well remain controversial to many listeners. Uninitiated listening might have it seem that when Guttenberg passes the chalice, he hands it over with a cup of crazy. But it isn’t that simple and it wouldn’t be doing the performance justice to declare it wilfully romantic or completely over the top. There is rhyme and reason to all he does. Not only that, as a musical interpretation of the gospel of St.Matthew, it becomes one of the great Matthew Passion recordings there are.
 
Whatever Guttenberg does in the Matthew Passion, he does not out of a sense of license or sheer, unmotivated exuberance — but out of a sense of duty to the text and Bach, and the impression the Matthew Passion must presumably have made on the original audience. The cry “Barabas”, for example, is not a short, punctuated staccato interruption, it is an extended, surprisingly slow and devastatingly disturbing cry that tears through the fabric of the music, analogous to the when the veil in the temple is torn as Jesus dies on the cross. The dissonant chord which, to our ears is no longer shriekingly dissonant, is played out so harrowingly that the dissonance is again audible.
 
The chorale “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden” initially sounded dour to my ears — now I find it as touching as could be, because I hear in it the utter reluctance to part. The whiplash of the continuo string instruments and the frenzied violins in the recitative “Erbarm es Gott!” depicts the beating of Christ about as vividly as the Mel Gibson film.
 
The overly enunciated chorale “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” irritated me in the live performance. Musically, I’m still not particularly fond of the hacked-off stop-and-go performance the choir turns in. But realizing how this symbolizes the broken bones of Christ, how he has suffered, and suffers under his wounds does make it a truly, appropriately pitiful moment. If the interpretive device with which Guttenberg conveys that scene isn’t actually very pleasant, well… neither is the scene he depicts.
 
The coup of Guttenberg’s interpretation of the Matthew Passion is that he elevates — or rather: uncovers and restores — the climax of Matthew’s gospel as the highpoint of Bach’s work. It’s often missed because it is so short, but it’s unmissable in the story. It is at Matthew 27:54 and part 63b (NBA) in Bach, when at the end of the crucifixion scene, after the gruesome death of Jesus and the ensuing earthquake, the rough heathen Roman executioners and their captain (of all people!) are the first to grasp the meaning of what has happened before them. Their hearts change and they acknowledge (“Due chori in unisono”): “Truly… truly: this was the Son of God.” (Notably, it’s the only time Bach lets both choirs sing unisono.)
 
Two bars, not even 20 notes — but here elevated to the pinnacle of the whole work. Forty (!) seconds so intense, so heartfelt, so earnestly passionate, that absolutely without fail I tear up every time I hear it.
 
Guttenberg ’s Matthew Passion is a religious one. In the extensive interview included in the liner notes, he may admit to knowing no better than the next guy whether God exists or not, but declares his love for the gospel of Matthew and — this is crucial — how he puts the text of the gospel above the music. As a Bavarian (Upper Franconian) Catholic, emotionality is important to Guttenberg, and conveying the emotion of the gospel by whatever means (including HIP methods) is his sole goal. The result is an utterly baroque reading of BWV 244.
 
I like to imagine how a few Bach lovers who appreciate the work of Rifkin, McCreesh, or Junghänel roll their eyes at this, exclaiming how the last thing they need is a “baroque” reading of Bach… before becoming aware of the inherent absurdity of that sentiment.
 
But emotionality in the 21st century is different from Bach’s time, our ears perceive music differently, and the means to recreate a reaction to the text of the gospel will have to be different, too. We will never know how Bach’s performances sounded, much less how he wanted them to sound and why. Chances are it sounded much more like Butt’s version (except not nearly as good) than Guttenberg’s. And yet Guttenberg might be closer to Bach than Butt in the way he presents the Matthew Passion.
 
Bach’s Matthew Passion could just be taken as a piece of music. Indeed, the miracle of the Matthew Passion is how great it is, even if we don’t ‘experience’ it. That even the naked music of the Matthew Passion will move us, faithful or faithless. Perhaps not to our every core, but substantially still. But to be moved truly, one needs to partake and understand what Bach says or what Bach gives voice to. Because the Matthew Passion has, in and of itself, meaning, it ought not only be listened to, but experienced, too.
 
Guttenberg’s interpretation redirects us toward that meaning, but it also profits from knowing it in the first place. A sensitive soul may intuitively get Guttenberg’s musical explanations of the text, but that means that knowing the text is a prerequisite. It is, incidentally, the only prerequisite. Belief is not – because the Passion’s meaning is independent of belief or faith. Neither Guttenberg’s performance nor this review is an attempt to proselytize, merely a call to understanding Bach’s music beyond the notes.
 
Even if you accept all of this, it need not mean that you have to like the interpretation, musically. After all, the intention, good as it may be, isn’t all-important to the result. But it is important enough — especially in a work like the Matthew Passion — not to be separated. If you don’t separate it, then the Guttenberg recording becomes deserving of our utmost attention and benevolence. And it will, if approached like this, reward generously — through Bach — in ways that musically smoother and less controversial recordings will not.
 
John Butt’s version is exhilarating on first impression — and exhilarating it remains in many ways. But its flaws (flaws to my ears, at least) become more notable upon repeat listening, and less easy to ignore. Put in the proper context, Gutenberg’s interpretation becomes one of the most intensely felt and thoughtful Matthew Passions. Neither account would be a natural ‘first or only recording recommendation’. But for those who love the work and exploring it in all its facets, both are essential.
 
Jens F. Laurson

see also review of the Linn CD by Peter Bright
 

 


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