The St Matthew Passion in Leipzig: A Memorable Experience Despite Some Hasty Speeds

GermanyGermany. Bach, St Matthew Passion:Soloists, Thomanerchor Leipzig, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Michael Gläser (conductor). St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig, 17.4.2014 (MB)

Ute Selbig (soprano, Weib des Pilatus)
Damien Guillon (counter-tenor)
Martin Petzold (Evangelist)
Martin Lattke (tenor)
Panajotis Iconomou (Christus)
Thomas Laske (bass, Pilatus)
Max Gläser (Ancilla I)
Johannes Hildebrnadt (Ancilla II)
Ansgar Führer (Testis I)
Paul Stammkötter (Testis II)
Julius Sattler (Pontifex I)
Friedrich Hammel (Pontifex II)
Kien Dô Trung (Judas)
Georg Schütze (Petrus)


To hear the St Matthew Passion in the Thomaskirche on Maundy Thursday – Good Friday will be Parsifal day – could hardly fail to be a moving experience. Though a concert rather than a liturgical performance, there is enough of the Church, past and present, Body of Christ and bricks and mortar, to ensure that it is not merely a concert as generally understood. And St Thomas’s Church itself ensures that no performance, however astringent its intention, can fail to exude a degree of warmth. (Those seeking alleged ‘authenticity’ would do well to ponder the entirely ‘inauthentic’ sound, let alone experience, offered by the concert hall, let alone the clinical quality and distortions of a recording.)

Michael Gläser’s tempi were often very fast, sometimes absurdly so, but equally capable of convincing and surprising. (Wherever does this bizarre obsession with despatching the supreme masterpiece of Western art as quickly as possible come from?) Although the great opening chorus was in principle too fast, the security of the bass continuo line ensured that it maintained coherence. Just as importantly, the outstanding choral singing, here and elsewhere, ensured that all was not lost. The cries of ‘Wohin?’ were properly questioning, drawing us into the drama that was to unfold. Even in the case of the extremely fast tempo adopted for ‘Ja nicht auf das Fest,’ orchestral depth and power maintained more than a degree of the necessary gravity. Moreover, such tempi were not entirely predictable: that for ‘Wo willst du, dass wir dir bereiten’ was far more relaxed, indeed in context surprisingly slow. The hissing sibilants of ‘Herr, bin ichs?’ a little later told their own story. And, though again in reality simply too fast, ‘O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, the great chorale prelude with which the first part closes, still made its expressive point. Gläser really ought, though, to listen to and to consider the great performances of the past, both in Leipzig and elsewhere; so much is lost here when ploughing through it as quickly as possible, however excellent the choir and orchestra. Likewise, if the vicious, spiteful crowd truly made its presence felt in ‘Der du den Tempel Gottes zerbirchst’, ‘Wahrlich, dieser ist Gottes Sohn gewesen’ sounded oddly inconsequential. In so consciously deflated a delivery, there was no sense whatsoever of what should be a world-shattering recognition. Furtwängler here remains supreme – and if we cannot expect his like today, we ought to be able to expect more than that. The final chorus, however, even if it did not move as it does with, say Klemperer or Richter, concluded in a fashion that was more than merely matter-of-fact, leaving one wishing only for silence.

The vocal soloists were not the most impressive bunch, though they had their moments. Ute Selbig sang with sincerity and quasi-instrumental agility, although in, for instance, ‘Ich will dir meine Herze schenken’, the wonderful Gewandhaus woodwind shone more brightly still in that respect. Selbig’s subtle ornamentation convinced too. And when she was permitted a more sensible tempo, as in ‘Er hat uns allen wohlgetan … Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben,’ there were signs of something more profound than we generally heard. Bar a few moments of harshness, Damien Guillon’s counter-tenor impressed on its own terms, but it is difficult to understand a preference for a counter-tenor here over a female voice. Christa Ludwig, Janet Baker, et al., not only sound ‘right’, but have the consoling warmth that words and music demand. ‘Erbarme dich’, however, benefited from a perfectly-judged violin solo (Christian Funke). It was, moreover, permitted to unfold at a reasonable tempo. Martin Lattke’s tenor solos did not make a huge impression; Martin Petzold’s Evangelist sometimes veered towards caricature – spitting ‘spieten’ once is fine, but twice… – but at least he offered detailed attention to the text. Panajotis Iconomou’s Christus was disturbingly woolly and unfocused in the first part, intonation sometimes drifting, but he recovered strongly in the second. His first appearance therein, ‘Du sagest. Doch sage ich euch…’ was resonant and focused. Thomas Laske’s performance arguably headed in the opposite direction, though he was indubitably hampered by absurdly fast tempi for both of his arias in the second part, a sense of struggle in ‘Mache dich’ entirely absent. His interjections as Pilate, however, were uniformly excellent.

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment