Bach - St. Matthew Passion / Guttenberg, Neubeuern Choral Society
The greatest work of its kind ever written, Johann Sebastian Bach's technical, emotional, and devotional masterpiece is a massive enterprise employing six soloists and a double chorus. Its deeply moving combination of joy and grief attains the utmost heights of expressiveness, while the Neubeuern Choral Society's Enoch zu Guttenberg brings it to new life with his unique Bavarian choir, world famous for their oratorios ranging from Bach to Stravinsky.
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The choral singing is wonderful, but I wish that Guttenberg would have avoided the old practice of stopping at the fermatas in the chorales. I find this to be very annoying. There's also no consistency regarding the style of performance - some arias are decorated in the repeats, while others are not.
One improvement over the laser disc version - the subtitles are complete. In the laser disc version, entire sections of the performance lacked these subtitles.
What made it so unique for me is that years ago I made a pilgrimage through Schwarzwald (The Black Forest in Baden-Württemberg, southwestern Germany) to see that particular abbey where this performance took place - the Benedictine Abbey in Alpirsbach, an architectural jewel of the world. The abbey was begun in 1095 and finished in its present look in 1125; an important impulse for the execution of Alpirsbach came from the Hirsauer School of construction. The monastery of Hirsau, centre of the Benedictine order, came under the influence of the reforms that were instituted after 1000 in France by the Burgundian monastery of Cluny. According to the rules of Benedict, the monks led a life of asceticism and meditation. Their architecture was severe and monumental; and here one cannot fail to recall Abbaye de Fontenay in Burgundy, which is the architectural expression of the ideas of St-Bernard; its buildings form the perfect setting for the monastic life led according to the Rule of St. Benedict. And although the Abbaye de Fontenay is of Cisterian order, it is closely linked to Benedictine abbey in Alpirsbach, which promoted the same principals.
The building is magnificently situated on a gentle hill, and it is gleaming in rose light at a clear sunset; it is probably built from the same stone as other major cathedrals in the region - as in Freiburg and in Strasbourg; that rose stone gives a very special impression, perhaps more powerful than a more ordinary yellow stone used for Fontenay. The light is very inviting, and four years ago, when approaching Alpirsbach abbey, I was so much looking forward to see its interior; alas, I arrived too late and it was closed for the evening; I did not have a chance to see the interior then.
Thus, what a delight it has been to discover that this DVD takes you inside, accompanied by some of the most genius music ever composed! St. Matthew Passion is quite a lengthy work - it runs for three and a half hours, and it might take a few evenings to see it all. It is interesting to note that according to scholars like Richard Taruskin, it is a modern practice to stage this work fully; decades ago it would be inconceivable as a secular performance, given in Symphony halls, etc.
Here, knowing about the rich history of the location, the music takes on a new dimension. Musically, it is a superb performance - perhaps in part because of this conductor who is from a fascinating family - The House of Guttenberg, which is a prominent Franconian family which traces its origins back to 1149 with a Gundeloh v. Blassenberg (Plassenberg). The name Guttenberg is derived from Guttenberg and was adopted by a Heinrich von Blassenberg around 1310. The castle of Guttenberg remains the main seat of the family. In 1700 the family rose from Reichsritter (Imperial Knights) to Reichsfreiherr (Barons of the Holy Roman Empire). After the Holy Roman Empire dissolved, they were made `'Freiherr'` (Barons) of Bavaria (1814 & 1817).
Naturally, Bavaria is bordering Württemberg, and Bach's native Leipzig is also only a few hundred kilometers away; all those qualities - genius, nobility and passion, must have made this performance in Alpirsbach abbey so unique; and it is a must-see and hear.
To be honest, I don't think such battalions of singers and instruments, even the most virtuosic in the world, could perform the St. Matthew passion successfully. And if they could succeed in a concert setting, the results still could not be recorded and pumped through anybody's home sound system, however, hi-tech, without sounding like a mighty bow-wow, a tractor-pull with subtitles. So there is, after all, a question of performance practice. This performance is a grand example of the wrong choices.
I ordered this DVD in response to a previous reviewer's praise of its visual majesty, revealing the interior of the Cloister-Church of Alpirsbach, in Germany. Frankly, even the visuals were disappointing. One sees a lot more of conductor Enoch zu Guttenberg, grimacing at his forces with the disciplinarian scowl of a Sunday School Superintendent with dyspepsia. The faces of the Neubeurer Choir Society are enthusiastic, devout, neighborly enough, but scarcely aesthetically uplifting. The soloists struggle to look passionate, despite the lugubrious tempi, but that's not enough to alleviate their wayward tuning. The best-known of them, the venerable basso Hermann Prey, is also the worst culprit of bad tuning, besides which his voice is too stiff and gruff to be eloquent in the role of Jesus.
I imagine that the price of this DVD would cover the cost of a tank of gas, even in Germany, to get from München to Alpirsbach; the cloister is indeed worth viewing, with or without music.
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