09 October 2013

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach – MATTHÄUS-PASSION (W. Güra, J. Weisser, S. Im, B. Fink, T. Lehtipuu, K. Wolff; harmonia mundi HMC 802156.58)

Johann Sebastian Bach: MATTHÄUS-PASSION (harmonia mundi HMC 802156.58)

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Matthäus-Passion, BWV 244—W. Gura (Evangelista - tenor), J. Weisser (Christus - baritone), S. Im (soprano), C. Roterberg (soprano), B. Fink (mezzo-soprano), M.-C. Chappuis (mezzo-soprano), T. Lehtipuu (tenor), F. Trümpy (tenor), K. Wolff (bass-baritone), A. Kataja (baritone); RIAS Kammerchor, Staats- und Domchor Berlin; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin; René Jacobs [Recorded in Teldex Studio Berlin during August and September 2012; harmonia mundi HMC 802156.58; 2 SACD + 1 DVD, 159:05; Available from Amazon, jpc, and all major music retailers]

Not unlike the music itself, recordings of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach inspire respect and reverence far more often than genuine excitement.  There are so many details of Bach’s life, his compositional process, the circumstances under which many of his greatest scores were created, and the performances that introduced contemporary audiences to his music that simply are not known, and at least as many questions have been raised in the eighty years since the Matthäus-Passion was first recorded as have been answered.  In those eight decades, there have been legitimate progress in the understanding of how Bach’s Passions were likely performed during the composer’s lifetime and countless atrocities committed in the name of progress.  Recordings from the middle of the Twentieth Century offered performances of the Matthäus-Passion that adhered to bloated Victorian traditions, distorting the carefully-balanced proportions of Bach’s music, but recordings made after the advent of the historically-informed performance practice movement have seen the pendulum swing to the opposite extreme, with many of the most acclaimed latter-day Bach conductors advocating an one-to-a-part approach that is sensible in academic terms but often disappointingly wan in performance.  Scholarship is exceptionally important, of course: without it, music risks being static, and Baroque music in particular has much to fear from unquestioning perpetuation of performance traditions.  Equally perilous for a score like Bach’s Matthäus-Passion is dogged pursuit of radical ideas for the sake of doing something different, however.  Despite the mountains of uncertainty that encircle the Matthäus-Passion, there are in the fertile valleys of the music itself and the contemporary accounts of its performance that survive plentiful clues that offer fleeting glimpses into the musical landscape of the mighty score as it might have been revealed when Bach himself presided over its unveiling.  The sleuthing of René Jacobs has sometimes produced performances so shaped by idiosyncrasies that the power of the music at hand was diminished.  Having been acquainted on the most intimate of terms with Bach’s Matthäus-Passion throughout virtually his entire life as a performer, first as a treble, later as a countertenor, and most recently as a conductor, Maestro Jacobs cannot fail to regard the work as much as an old friend as one of the great masterworks of Western choral music.  His scholarship, born of the affection inspired by this lifelong coexistence, here produces a performance of the Matthäus-Passion unlike any other ever recorded.  Whether the authentic spirit of Bach pervades this performance must ultimately be determined by each individual listener, but the Passion of Christ has perhaps never been more grippingly depicted through music than in this performance.  Whether his performing forces in Leipzig nearly three centuries ago numbered eighteen or eighty, could Bach object to a performance that employs his music in such an eloquent exploration of the personal and global implications of the life achieved only through death?

It is often stated that Bach’s Johannes-Passion is the more overtly dramatic depiction of Christ’s last days on earth, while the Matthäus-Passion is a more contemplative, introverted work.  Still, the Matthäus-Passion has its own finely-wrought sense of drama: perhaps it might be more accurate to state that the Johannes-Passion portrays the suffering of Christ with the economy and sincerity of Schiller whereas the Matthäus-Passion aspires to the humanity and poetry of Shakespeare.  Recent years have seen attempts to stage Bach’s Passions as sacred dramas on an operatic scale, but Maestro Jacobs rightly rejects this concept in this recording of Matthäus-Passion, which seeks to place the work in precisely one of the contexts for which it was conceived, performance in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, circa 1736.  Maestro Jacobs therefore employs Bach’s revised edition of the score, prepared (as contemporary accounts confirm) to make use of two organs.  Maestro Jacobs and harmonia mundi’s engineers grant special attention to the spatial challenges presented by the layout of the Thomaskirche, and Maestro Jacobs’s bold choices yield extraordinary results, especially when heard in Super Audio format.  Recognizing that Bach had before him a very large space to fill with sound, Maestro Jacobs takes full advantage of every technical advancement in stereophonic sound recording by dividing not only his choirs and instrumental ensembles but also his soloists, with some arias recorded from a perspective that creates for the listener the illusion of hearing them as they might have been performed in 1736, with both solo and choral voices coming at the ears from different positions within the Thomaskirche.  The effect of hearing some of the arias from a distance, as it were, is bizarre at first, but the cumulative impact of this approximation of the sonic reconstruction of the music as Bach might have heard it is arresting.  Even without the benefits of Super Audio playback, the spatial range of the recording is tremendous, transporting the listener to a pew in the Thomaskirche more convincingly and evocatively than any other recorded performance.

Musically, Maestro Jacobs presides over a performance in which moments of eloquence and genuine insightfulness are too many to number, and the choral and instrumental forces follow his lead with absolute commitment.  The boys of the Staats- und Domchor Berlin, under the direction of Kai-Uwe Jirke, sing beautifully, supplementing the extraordinary singing of the RIAS Kammerchor.  In such a strongly-sung performance, even the formulaic Chorales are moving, and the poise and responsiveness with which the choristers combine with soloists in the arias with chorus are exemplary.  The choristers’ intonation never falters, and the dramatic energy with which both powerful outbursts and subdued moments of greatest emotional conflict are delivered holds the listener’s attention from first note to last.  The vibrancy of the recorded sound detracts nothing from the choristers’ deft articulation of rapid passages.  Individual members of the chorus also contribute ably to the performance in smaller solo rôles: soprano Katharina Hohlfield as Ancilla I, alto Ulrike Bartsch as Ancilla II, soprano Anja Petersen as Uxor Pilati, bass Ingolf Horenburg as Pontifex, bass Andrew Redmond as Petrus, bass Johannes Schendel as Judas, alto Jakob Huppmann as Testis I, tenor Christian Mücke as Testis II and the quartet of soprano Christina Roterberg, alto Waltraud Heinrich, tenor Volker Arndt, and bass Klaus Thiem in the aria ‘Ach, nun ist mein Jesus’ all sing strongly, freeing this performance from the weaknesses frequently encountered among the secondary parts.  The wonderful singing of the choristers is complemented by an exceptionally fine performance by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.  Frequent collaborators with Maestro Jacobs, the Akademie’s players have committed many excellent performances to disc, but they have never played with greater eloquence and inspiration than in this performance.  The ‘halo’ of strings that accompanies Christ’s utterances is shaped with genuine radiance, ideally supporting the effects that the singer seeks to make.  Woodwinds are played with technical acumen far beyond the levels achieved by many players of period instruments.  Lutenist Shizuko Noiri contributes superbly to the continuo, but the obbligato playing in the bass aria ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz’—which is also offered in its version with viola da gamba obbligato as an appendix—is a thing apart, a performance of great accomplishment.  Throughout the performance, the Akademie players respond unerringly to Maestro Jacobs’s leadership, seemingly feeling the pulse of his intensely personal interpretation of the score in their bone marrow.  This uniformity of artistic vision both enhances the validity of Maestro Jacobs’s interpretive choices and reveals the innermost structure of the Matthäus-Passion, from the perspectives of the Gospel and Bach’s music.

Maestro Jacobs’s advocacy of a division of vocal soloists after the same manner as that employed for placement of the divided choirs and orchestras inevitably results in the engagement of more soloists than are typically heard in a performance of the Matthäus-Passion, corresponding with the compartmentalization of the narrative.  It is further testament to the encompassing unity of Maestro Jacobs’s approach to the score that his team of aria soloists, expanded to include eight singers, produces singing of the highest quality.  The soprano arias are sung by Sunhae Im and Christina Roterberg.  Ms. Im takes the lion’s share of the arias and excels in each of them, providing an especially lovely account of ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben.’  Ms. Roterberg distinguishes herself with a fervently-phrased performance of ‘Blute nur, du liebes Herz.’  Mezzo-soprano Marie-Claude Chappuis makes much of the sole aria given to her, ‘Können Tränen meiner Wangen,’ bringing impressive intensity to the aria and the recitative that precedes it.  In addition to the score’s other alto arias, to mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, renowned for her singing of Bach’s music, falls the task of singing the exquisite ‘Erbarme dich,’ arguably the Matthäus-Passion’s (and perhaps even Bach’s) most celebrated solo aria.  Maestro Jacobs adopts a tempo for the aria that is slightly faster than many conductors have chosen, but the focus of Ms. Fink’s singing unforgettably conveys the text’s plea for mercy.  Ms. Fink’s voice remains in excellent condition, with the upper register sounding especially well-supported and attractive.  Tenorial duties are divided evenly between Topi Lehtipuu and Fabio Trümpy.  Mr. Lehtipuu’s singing of the recitative ‘O Schmerz! hier zittert das gequälte Herz’ and aria ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’ is ideal, the tone absolutely secure, the timbre honeyed but brilliant, and the technique absolutely comfortable with the idiom.  Mr. Trümpy proves an extremely capable singer as well, offering nuanced shading of tone in the recitative ‘Mein Jesus schweigt zu falschen Lügen stille’ and aria ‘Geduld, Geduld!’  Bass-baritone Konstantin Wolff produces an alluring stream of dark-sapphire tone in ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz,’ both in the version with lute, which is preferred in the sequence of the Passion, and in the edition with viola da gamba.  Baritone Arttu Kataja reacts to the very different demands of ‘Gerne will ich mich bequemen’ and ‘Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder!’ with equal success, the dark timbre of the voice never reducing its flexibility or clarity of intonation.

It is interesting to note that Norwegian baritone Johannes Weisser was at the time of the making of this recording close to the age at which history and liturgy suggest that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.  Thirty-two is hardly an age at which a man of the Twenty-First Century might be expected to have the proverbial weight of the world upon his shoulders, but both the Apostle and the composer depict in the Matthäus-Passion an insightful but not unafraid man compelled by duty and forces beyond his control to be sacrificed both as fulfillment of prophecy and as the embodiment of all that has been, is, and will be; the symbolic destruction of Providence’s stronghold on earth and the rising of the New Jerusalem.  Musically and dramatically, the climax of Christ’s participation in Bach’s Matthäus-Passion is his institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, which Bach sets in broadly flowing arioso passages that are sung with verbal alertness and sublime concentration by Mr. Weisser.  Indeed, it is his audible surrender to the spirit of his music that is the most memorable element of Mr. Weisser’s performance.  The Matthäus-Passion is not a ‘sacred drama’ of the sort exemplified by Händel’s Old Testament oratorios, but a performance without a charismatic, credibly self-confident Christ at its center cannot wholly escape this flaw.  Though much of his operatic work is in baritone rôles, including a previous harmonia mundi recording of the title rôle in Mozart’s Don Giovanni under Maestro Jacobs’s direction, Mr. Weisser is comfortable in the fully bass tessitura of Christ’s music, the lowest notes little troubling him.  In the intelligent husbanding of his vocal resources and matching of tonal shading to nuances of text, Mr. Weisser recalls the singing of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, though Mr. Weisser’s command of the lower octave of the tessitura is more confident than Fischer-Dieskau’s.  Rather than being a cardboard Savior, Mr. Weisser’s Christ emerges as a fascinatingly virile figure, a man in the prime of his life who feels the crushing hand of universal sin upon him but, knowing that it is his destiny to vindicate errant humanity, is not broken by it.  Vocally, Mr. Weisser’s performance wants for nothing.

Perhaps to an even greater extent than in the Johannes-Passion, the overall success of a performance of the Matthäus-Passion relies upon the singing of the tenor to whom the part of the Evangelist is entrusted.  If pages upon pages of text were not sufficiently daunting, Bach set these expanses to music with an uniquely punishing tessitura, closer to the haute-contre tradition of French Baroque music than to other Teutonic models.  Merely to sing the music accurately is achievement enough, but to sing it truly beautifully and without distortion is a preciously rare accomplishment.  Werner Güra, one of the finest tenors heard in Baroque music in recent years, here crowns his distinguished career—which includes participation in several previous recordings of the Matthäus-Passion—with a performance of the Evangelist worthy of comparison with the best accounts of the part ever recorded.  The heady beauty of Mr. Güra’s voice shimmers throughout the performance, and the crispness of his diction—native, of course, but no less praiseworthy for that—renders him a participant in the narrative rather than a passive observer.  Whereas many tenors convey Peter’s anguish at realizing that he has fulfilled the prophecy of thrice denying Christ by evoking empathy for the travails of the singer’s throat, Mr. Güra grips the heartstrings by singing the music unhesitatingly, never crooning, never cheating, and never resorting to poorly-projected falsetto.  Mr. Güra’s Evangelist is audibly a man with a very close relationship to Christ, both follower and friend, and the voice glows with anger in his descriptions of the manner in which Christ is mistreated.  Mr. Güra’s performance transcends mere narration, traveling a wide distance from good-natured awe to genuine sorrow and hope in salvation.  Verbally, every syllable of Mr. Güra’s delivery is discernible without his enunciation ever seeming deliberate or fussy.  Musically, every note of the Evangelist’s music is sung gorgeously.  Most importantly, Mr. Güra embodies the true spirit of the Evangelist: more than relaying things he has seen and heard, this man leads the listener through a dangerous and profoundly troubled world in which a man he loves is brutally murdered.

It has been suggested that, on its own terms, Bach’s Matthäus-Passion is not unlike Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen: dealing with one of humanity’s great systems of belief, Bach paved the way for Wagner by personalizing the ritualized mythology of one of the defining precepts of social and philosophical history without lessening the appeal of its universality.  If it can be argued that virtually any of Wagner’s heroes is symbolic of Christ, that Lohengrin’s Christ champions the honor of Elsa’s Mary Magdalene, that the return of Tannhäuser from Rome and the vanquishing of Venus are the Second Coming of Christ and the condemnation of the Whore of Babylon, perhaps it can be suggested without incredulity that the figure of Christ in the Matthäus-Passion is Bach’s Siegfried, sacrificed for the purification of humanity, and the Evangelist his Loge, who wonders at the known as keenly as at the unknown.  The marvel of the Matthäus-Passion is that a work of such dramatic and musical immensity is in its emotional impact incredibly intimate; or, rather, that it manages to be in the best performances of it.  The true grandeur of the Matthäus-Passion is not in its dimensions but in its directness.  So many performances seek distinction in detail, decorating a heartless corpse in resplendent garments.  The musical clothes in which this Matthäus-Passion is clad are of the richest fabrics, but René Jacobs and his dedicated team of artists take the heart of Bach’s music in their hands, exposing it to beat and bleed throughout this performance.  This is not a performance of incense and reliquaries: this is a performance of pierced flesh, of the smell of putrid smoke and the trembling earth of Golgotha.  Informed but not bound by scholarship, René Jacobs has produced a performance of the Matthäus-Passion that allows the starlight of Bach’s genius to shine brightly and inspires the listener, regardless of his faith, to say, ‘This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.’