Friday 3 April 2009

St Matthew Passion, Leipzig Gewandhaus/Chailly, 3 April 2009

Gewandhaus, Leipzig

Bach – St Matthew Passion, BWV 244

Christina Landshamer (soprano)
Marie-Claude Chappuis (contralto)
Johannes Chum (tenor: Evangelist)
Maximilian Schmitt (tenor: arias)
Thomas Quasthoff (bass: arias)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass: Christus)
Klaus Häger (bass: Pilate, Peter, Judas)

Choir of St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig (choirmaster: Georg Christoph Biller)
Tölzer Knabenchor (choirmaster: Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly (conductor)

Admittedly, I set myself up. Having listened, whilst on the train to Leipzig earlier in the day, to part of Klemperer’s recording of the St Matthew Passion, the opening chorus was bound to seem fast. However, I think Riccardo Chailly’s tempo for ‘Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen,’ would be considered speedy even by contemporary – that is, ‘authentic’, in our Alice-in-Wonderland world of Bach performance – standards. What shone through, however, was an urgency born not just of tempo but of a highly dramatic view of Bach’s passion setting. Now there can, at least for some of us, be no doubt that the St Matthew Passion qualifies as music drama, in a contemporary – post-Romantic, non-authentic! – sense; but I am not sure that it lends itself so well as the St John Passion might to being driven by ‘action’ in a more or less conventional sense. Of course, there is a narrative, for some the greatest story ever told, but there is also contemplation, above all in the arias and chorales, but not only there. I worried during the opening chorus whether its almost breakneck urgency would be maintained throughout the work. Not quite, perhaps, but too much nevertheless. Sometimes this was warranted, for instance when Christ quotes Scripture on the Mount of Olives: ‘I will smite the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered abroad.’ Sometimes it might have worked, for instance in the tenor recitative (with chorale), ‘O Schmerz! hier zittert das gequälte Herz!’ but did not because the tempo was simply so fast that singer and orchestra were not always quite together. And on other occasions, for instance the chorale closing the first part, ‘O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde groß,’ which was taken at an almost unbelievably fast tempo, the sense of detachment was such that it is difficult to believe that it could ever have been warranted. A geometrical exercise, over in what seemed like record time, here supplanted a true response to the music, let alone the words. In this context, the considerable ritardando at the end of the chorus and, still more so, the extremely prolonged final bass note sounded like arbitrary ‘effects’, at odds with the general vision, flawed or otherwise.

This, despite superlative choral singing throughout from the combined forces of the choir of Bach’s own church, St Thomas’s, Leipzig and the Tölz Boys’ Choir. The choirs certainly lent a terrifying vehemence, on account both of their strength in numbers but also their agility, to the celebrated ‘Sind Blitze, sind Donner’ chorus, the anger fairly spitting, to the choral interjections in the previous number, and to the subsequent cries of crucifixion. The boys’ presence in two out of the three final numbers helped ensure a conclusion of promise not always born out by aspects of the performance beforehand.

Another baleful aspect of ‘period’ practice Chailly adopted wholesale was the virtual elimination of vibrato from the violins – and to a lesser extent, which in itself is perhaps a little surprising, from the lower strings. This seems to be quite the thing for conductors who, whilst using modern instruments, fancy themselves to be acting ‘authentically’. Even on its own dubious terms, the practice seems fatally flawed, however, not least given the ‘modern’ style of the rest of the orchestra, which therefore outshone the strings throughout. The bizarre exception was the viola da gamba, with considerable vibrato applied by Thomas Fritzsch, and all the better for it. Obbligato parts were generally taken very well by the respective soloists from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. I was especially taken with the oboe part in the tenor aria (with chorus), ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’.

The vocal soloists were of mixed quality. Hanno Müller-Brachmann was straightforwardly excellent as Christus. His nobility and warmth of tone were matched by superlative diction and response to the text. It is a pity his string ‘halo’ could not have been warmer. Johannes Chum was a good Evangelist, again to be admired in his projection of the text, although I felt he could be a little fond of employing his head voice, the repeated effect bordering dangerously upon the sentimental and apparently contributing to occasional intonational difficulties. Chum’s rhetorical pauses seemed to be Chailly’s doing – all the recitatives were conducted – but were overdone, if not the singer’s fault. (They also seemed strangely at odds with the hectic nature of so much of the rest of the performance.) Marie-Claude Chappuis impressed by the instrumental quality of her voice, her line seemingly one of chamber music, first amongst equals rather than a ‘soloist’ as such. ‘Erbarme dich’ therefore acquired a sense of imploring from within, despite the lack of string vibrato. Klaus Häger did a considerable amount with his relatively small part. Christina Landshamer did nothing wrong but brought little out of the ordinary to her soprano numbers, which was a pity. Ironically, Chailly slowed the music down to great effect for her ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben,’ imparting just the right sense of deliberate tread to the music. In the difficult tenor arias, Maximilian Schmitt sometimes sounded a little parted, although this was far from always the case. Thomas Quasthoff started off sounding somewhat out of sorts, especially in his first aria. He improved considerably, although he was certainly not helped by a tempo for ‘Gebt mir meinem Jesum wieder!’ so fast that I thought he would be impelled to grab Christ back for himself. That said, there were nice touches, such as a subtle emphasis on ‘Geld’, underlining the role of blood money in the Saviour’s betrayal. ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein,’ was undoubtedly heartfelt, although again the tempo was simply too fast.

And yet, the final chorus did not fail to move. Having veered between born-again ‘authenticism’ and strange neo-Romantic touches – surely the wonderfully slow tempo for the chorale immediately prior to the earthquake was inconsistent with so much else – Chailly settled upon a tempo which, if hardly slow, was perfectly reasonable. Once again, the choral singing was excellent and the orchestral sound was fuller than one might have expected. Enough of a sacred atmosphere was restored, or perhaps created, to render the ensuing applause an unholy intrusion.