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Ionarts-at-Large: Troubled Matthew Passion, Saved By Excitement

Nikolaus Harnoncourt is dead and the future of his Concentus Musicus in question. Its power base, the cycle in Vienna’s Musikverein, has been moved to the small Brahms Hall for the time being; an unknown student and assistant of Harnoncourt’s (Stefan Gottfried) is slated to take over the next few concerts; Concentus violinists Erich Höbarth and Andrea Bischof (of Quatuor Mosaïques fame) help lead the ensemble. That leaves more of the early-music work – heavy lifting in a town not particularly keen on HIP-shenanigans, despite Harnoncourt’s great success – to the other early music band in Vienna, Martin Haselck’s 30-year young Vienna Academy Orchestra who do have their cycle in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein. They did their part on March 16th, when they presented Bach’s Matthew Passion. With the sublime Dorothee Mields as the lead soloist and memory of an absolutely superb Susanna (Handel; December 13th, 2015) still fresh, this was a promising proposition. So promising, alas, that it fell a good deal short; but also so proximate to the Vienna Symphony Orchestra’s lackluster Mass in B Minor here) that for all the hot mess it turned out to be, it was at least hot.

For the most part, the singers were good or even outstanding. Mezzo Ida Aldrian has a slightly dramatizing voice with a nice spot-vibrato that switches on for brief accentuations; part of the brain wants to raise a warning flag – the other part finds itself enjoying it immensely. It is a pointed way of treating text and music and makes the text easy to follow. She pleased more and more as the evening went on, and either by power of (her) suggestion or sheer luck, she got reasonably appropriate tempi thrown her way.

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Matthew Passion,
Enoch zu Guttenberg / Klangverwaltung / Chorgemeinschaft Neubeuern
M.Ullman, K.Mertens, A.Korondi, A.Vondung, W.Güra, H.C.Begemann

Tenor Samuel Boden’s Evangelist – I loved the suit (a striking gray cutaway? Surely not regulation-dress at the old-fogey stuffy Musikverein but damned dashing) of the boyish-looking 30-something – hasn’t quite arrived at Evangelist-maturity yet, sounded overtaxed at times, but his pronunciation and enunciation were excellent already and his effort top notch. A more natural delivery, more regal dignity and ease and less ‘eager sportscaster’ approach will do the trick in the years to come, of which he has very many. Of course any kind of judgement is a tad unfair when the current mental comparison is Mark Padmore. Bass-baritone José Antonio López is a robust, burly Jesus – one whom one is inclined not to worry about (as a character – which is in great contrast to the touching fragility that Roderick Williams shows in the Simon Rattle/Peter Sellars production from Berlin). Moments of beauty and moments of rudeness are side by side with him. (He’s a regular with the Vienna Academy Orchestra and had impressed in the Beethoven Ninth ‘premiere-like’ performance.)

Soprano Dorothee Mields’ top-of-the-voice vibrato could be less pronounced and just as effective or more, but the love for the text and the join in the music came through every note – as it did through the swaying gently along to the music with her whole body. The racing clip – borderline absurd – at which her aria (“Ich will Dir mein Herze schenken”) was taken did not seem to faze her in the least – she looks always totally relaxed when singing, though for a second I thought that the maestro had meant to conduct in two something he ended up conducting in one.

But the race is not always to the swift and while Haselck and his crew tend to excel at ‘fast-and-exciting’, here it came at the expensive of some attention to the music and was marred by out-of-sync passages with the full chorus, where no one was really together. Carried away by the beauty of the work and with good intentions thrown to the wind – nay: tornado – they hurled themselves onward into Bach.

It was an interesting choice (if it was a choice) of employing sensitive singers for Chorus I and seemingly unconcerned ones for Ensemble II: On the other hand it was most welcome to have all the soloists sing all the parts. Indeed, I wish it to be the rule, not the exception. But it seems less effective when the soloists seem to sight-read (and reluctantly some of them) with their nose deep in the score and hanging on for dear life. The one notable exception to this is Dorothee Mields who positively embraces getting to sing all the parts in the Matthew Passion, as a singer might, who has come through singing in choirs to becoming one of the foremost baroque soloists of our time. As the only one, she knew all the parts by heart – but then she has  Matthew Passions under her belt, already. (In fact, when asked about her favorite Bach experience in concert, she mentioned a performance not where she was featured as a soloist but where she was in the chorus, singing cantatas under Gustav Leonhardt in 1998.)

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Cantatas for Solo-Soprano,
D.Mields / L’Orfeo Baroque Orchestra / M.Gaigg,

Among the other group of soloists, meanwhile, soprano Ruby Hughes had all the warning flags of Miss Aldrian about her, without the benefit of pleasing the ears or that which sits between. A fine voice as far as projection and accuracy are concerned, but the vibrato, the squeaking into the empty space and the loveless or unknowing treatment of the text earned demerits. Tenor Daniel Johannsen has a pronouncedly dramatic, comfortable voice with a pleasant timbre but also with hints of self-love. Bass Günter Haumer (replacing the scheduled Klaus Mertens) remained pale; my notes suggest: “pale; like a stuffed frog” but any memory – good or bad – has vanished since the concert took place.

Finally another standout performance (apart from Mields), namely by counter-tenor Daniel Taylor. Except not the good kind. Daniel Taylor sounded like Dominique Visse on one of his character-binges and unintentionally comical. My goodness, what has happened to the man? Taylor used to command enough clout to be the front-counter-tenor for RCA for whom he recorded a bold debut album “The Voice of Bach” (review here). In 2005 he was part of an ensemble that recorded under Philippe Herreweghe one of my favorite Bach album of all times, the cantata disc “Weinen, Klagen…” (review here). In short, he was in the upper echelon of counter tenors, at a time when David Daniels and Bejun Mehta were big and Andreas Scholl still roamed the planes, but before the next generation of Max Emanuel Cenčić, David Hansen, Philippe Jaroussky, Iestyn Davies etc. hit the stages. Here he could be heard singing a version of “Those in Peril on the c′′”… Daniels could only make notes heard if and when he threw himself into them, and then it didn’t sound very pretty. It was uncomfortable to hear and still more uncomfortable to watch and he seemed visibly uncomfortable himself. The only thing more upsetting were the sycophants who praised him to his face but rolled their eyes during the concert. As to why he was flown in, for just this concert (apparently a few others had been planned but fell through), I can’t imagine. Just for name recognition? But if one of the (actual) big names can’t be had, give me Terry Wey any day, for less money and with less distance to travel to Vienna… or perhaps José Lemos still exists and sound good?

With this performance coming near that of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra’s B Minor Mass it put matters into important perspective. Flaws, occasional incoherence, odd tempos, failing countertenors, the violins temporarily going south… it can all be lifted to achieve something greater than the sum of its parts when there is sufficient excitement present. A train wreck in some ways, this Matthew Passion was most certainly exciting and every passing day made it clearer that I’d always pick disastrous excitement over the polite boredom and the other great Evangelist of our time (Werner Güra). And in any case there were real moments of “Besinnlichkeit” – contemplative serenity – from the bass recitative and aria “Am Abend, da es kühle war” / “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” onward… a pause for feeling, at last, and a very conciliatory ending to an occasionally frustrating performance. 

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