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‘Truly this was the Son of God’

The Crucifixion (1635-1665), by Alonso Cano

I was moved to tears by a visionary approach to Bach's great Passion, says Jens F Laurson

It was a little before Easter 2008, and I had only just begun to grasp that my life in the United States, where I had spent the previous dozen years, had come to an end. Back in my native but estranged Munich I was: lonely, though still writing for Washington’s Classical Music radio station.

It was then that my boss at WETA 90.9FM reached out and asked if I wanted to join him on a cross-European train trip. The goal was to see in performance as many of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Matthew Passions and productions of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal – traditionally an Easter opera for its prominent Good Friday music episode – as possible; all within the space of a fortnight. It turned into two of the most memorable and cherished weeks of my life. Fascinating in its own right, this is not that story.

Our first stop was Amsterdam, with three Matthew Passions in two days, where Jos van Veldhoven’s performance with the Netherlands Bach Society in the tiny historic fortress town of Naarden became an early highlight. By way of Paris and Stuttgart, we arrived in Munich again on Good Friday. Two choirs traditionally perform the Matthew Passion in Munich on that day in the Philharmonic Hall: the Munich Bach Choir (brought to fame by Karl Richter and now led by Hansjörg Albrecht) and the Choral Association Neubeuern, an amateur chorus from rural Upper Bavaria, that had been founded and led from hinterland pastures to Carnegie Hall by the conductor Baron Enoch zu Guttenberg.

I sat through the Munich Bach Choir’s performance with some interest, but for all my enduring love of Bach, I began to feel Matthew Passion overload that afternoon, hearing it a fourth time in as many days and a touch exhausted from travel. When I went back to the same hall in the evening, my patience and faculties of perception had hit a nadir. While my boss listened with joy and delight, I sat next to him, grumbling, tired, uncomprehending and increasingly agitated. What on earth was this Guttenberg character doing? What, for example, was that ridiculous hatchet-style staccato on the Chorale “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden / Voll Schmerz und voller Hohn” (“O sacred Head, now wounded / with grief and shame weighed down”)? Did this man not have a musical bone in his body to allow for such a wicked lack of legato singing? My boss tried to explain this and some other seemingly wilful touches, but I didn’t listen or understand at the time. Besides, there was a train to catch and more Wagner waiting.

But a year later, I did end up with a recording of Guttenberg’s Matthew Passion in my hands and, though with trepidation, I played it. This time I was well rested and – crucially – I read along in the text. And suddenly it was as if a veil had been lifted. Everything I remembered annoying me in performance now made perfect sense as I was sucked into the story. “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden”, for example, vividly characterised the pressing of the crown of thorns into Jesus’s skull with all the brutality of the act, until the blood pours forth. Guttenberg is relentless because Jesus’s torturers were. And sure enough, when the second refrain comes, with “Be Thou my consolation / my shield when I must die”, lyricism and legato are right back, for an incredibly tender, very different repeat of the new lines to the same music. I had missed that in my exhausted irritation then, but now it was incredibly moving.

Half-way through the Passion, I was completely sold on Guttenberg’s way of conducting the text, rather than just the music; of his attempts to make vivid to modern ears what Bach wanted to convey to his listeners. How can you make sure that a chord, considered wildly dissonant in Bach’s time, would still sound harsh and violent to modern ears reared on Wagner and Alban Berg? Rip into it accordingly. Exaggerate if necessary. Anything short of changing the music. Similarly the cry “Barabbas” – when the mob chooses him over Jesus to be set free – is not a short, punctuated interruption: it is a cry that tears through the fabric of the Passion, just as the fabric is later torn when Jesus dies on the Cross.

Eventually, more than two hours into the work, we arrive at three humble bars – out of 2,800 – given to both choruses singing “Truly, this was the Son of God.” Not even three bars: two – and a quarter note, and in most recordings and performances a pleasant if very brief musical afterthought. But Guttenberg takes what is the climax of Matthew’s Gospel and makes it the highpoint of Bach’s work, too. It is Matthew 27:54 (section 63b in the Bach score, if you are looking), when at the end of the crucifixion scene, after the gruesome death of Jesus and the ensuing earthquake, rough-and-tumble heathen Roman soldiers and their captain (of all people) are the first non-disciples to grasp the meaning of what has happened before them.

It’s Christianity, Zero Hour. Their hearts change and they acknowledge (“Due chori in unisono”): “Truly … truly: this was the Son of God.” Notably, it’s the only time Bach has both choirs sing unisono.

Enoch zu Guttenberg slams on the brakes, throwing in a massive ritardando and crescendo where on every eighth beat the music slows down yet more and more. It’s an astounding effect – he rolls the music out as if it were a rainbow rising over the sky. Forty seconds so intense, so heartfelt, so earnestly passionate, that it is hard not to cry before they are over. I do, almost every time.

It is a testament to the absolute once-in-many-lifetimes greatness of Bach’s Matthew Passion that it moves us – Catholics, Protestants, atheists – so substantially, even if we consume it just as music. But to be moved to the core, one needs to partake and understand what Bach says or what Bach gives voice to. Guttenberg understands and helps us to; his interpretation takes our hand and walks us through it, leading us from appreciating Bach’s Matthew Passion to understanding it.

Ten years after attending Guttenberg’s Matthew Passion with my boss, I went back to Munich to hear it again, this time with my wife, an active choral singer herself. Remembering my misgivings upon first exposure, I tried to prep her for Guttenberg’s approach – but failed: she blustered at almost exactly the same instances that I had objected to the first time around. Good thing that Guttenberg’s interpretation is extraordinarily consistent: in 10 years, she will love it just as much, I figured.

Alas, not. Two-and-a half-months later I stood before a white coffin in a crypt, tears running down my cheeks. The genial, dynamic, gregarious, ever vital Enoch zu Guttenberg had very unexpectedly died, leaving a void that cannot be filled.

Jens F Laurson is a classical music critic-at-large