Bach: St Matthew Passion

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2.0 out of 5 star rating 2.0

COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Farao
WORKS: St Matthew Passion
PERFORMER: Anna Korondi (soprano), Anke Vondung (mezzo-soprano), Marcus Ullmann, Werner Güra (tenor), Klaus Mertens (bass-baritone), Hans Christoph Begemann (bass); Neubeuern Choral Society, Tölz Boys Choir, KlangVerwaltung Orchestra/Enoch zu Guttenberg
CATALOGUE NO: B 108 035
Enoch zu Guttenberg is provocative from the start. In an interview in the booklet he admits that ‘our vision does not have very much in common with [conventional approaches]’. For a start, he prefers modern instruments – ‘we know how much Baroque musicians suffered because their instruments could not always keep up with their creative intentions’. The logic of his argument is rendered more arcane by uneasy translation, but there emerges a self-confessed ‘romantic’, colouring ‘what did [Bach] want?’ with ‘the emotion of the twenty-first century’.

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He’s at his best in the scenes of highly charged drama. His choir of about 50 voices creates a terrifying bloodthirsty mob, through mighty crescendos and dynamic extremes of scorn and derision. It has a convincing congregational quality in chorales, too, though hefty accents on every beat of ‘O Haupt voll Blut…’ are a painful example of Guttenberg’s quirky judgement. The abstract monumental choruses are often uncomfortably fast; he shaves a full minute off the end of Part 1, compared with Koopman, to whom I returned with relief as my benchmark.

There are illuminating moments – cors anglais articulating exactly as Bach notated (No. 57) – but they’re offset by curious blind spots. Decades of scholarship are ignored in ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’, with appoggiaturas shortened, reversed and simply omitted, so that instruments no longer echo voices.

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Of the soloists, soprano and contralto make hard work of their more impassioned moments, tenor, bass and Klaus Mertens (Jesus) are excellent, and Marcus Ullmann is a highly charged evangelist, if sometimes strained by modern high pitch, above a dryly inexpressive harpsichord. George Pratt