BACH: Matthäus-Passion

Ullmann, Mertens, Korondi, Vondung, Güra, Begemann
Chorgemeinschaft Neubeuern, KlangVerwaltung, zu Guttenberg etc.
Farao Classics B 108 035 (3 CDs plus bonus CD)

On an accompanying CD and in the liner notes, interviewer Klaus J. Schönmetzler asks conductor Enoch zu Guttenberg, “Why another St. Matthew Passion?” This is a fair question considering the glut of recordings ranging from the overtly romantic to the idealized “authentic” (and mostly fast) Baroque editions. To his credit, Guttenberg responds to this question by acknowledging an aversion to interpreting Bach overly Romantically while desiring a Baroque sensibility. As a theologian, zu Guttenberg understands an undeniable conviction in Bach’s theology, particularly in the chorales, which he acknowledges can lead to a more Romantic interpretation. Zu Guttenberg’s attempt to capture this devotion coupled with the reality of twenty-first century instruments and performers, produces a St. Matthew stuck in a mediocre middle ground between a Baroque “ideal” and a Romantic interpretation.
Indeed the conductor’s vision is the strongest aspect of the performance. Zu Guttenberg makes some very dramatic decisions to convey the pathos of Bach’s music. Theology and conviction are most prevalent in the chorales with hushed dynamics, dramatic cesuras, and strong marked accents imparting the didactic impact of the chorale texts. However, the remainder of the singing, while clear, is mostly uninspired. The bass, Hans Christoph Begemann, is the only soloist who adds enough assuredness to his arias to match the chorales’ effect. Hungarian soprano, Anna Korondi, is tinny and thin, particularly in the upper register, resulting in a forgettable “Aus Liebe.” Tenor Werner Güra combines a bit of fire and flexibility in his arias, but alto Anke Vondung lacks both, failing to match the complexity of the music.
The orchestra is nimble but large and seems to cover the voices throughout — soloists and choir. Perhaps the recording engineering allows the orchestra to overpower the soloists’ voices, resulting in a loss of sensitivity. Klaus Mertens sings Jesus with a certain clarity and humilty in his tone. On other hand, the Evangelist, Marcus Ullmann, is downright wimpy. His voice is unable to cut through the continuo vocally, let alone carry the dramatic thread of the work. Since in Bach the quality of the Evangelist dictates the quality of the performance of the entire passion, it is difficult to imagine that this recording could be much better. Zu Guttenberg has a clear image of both the Gospel story and Bach’s setting, but he is unable to fully execute his ideal given the inherent weaknesses of his performers.
Adam Luebke