"Ich will Jesum selbst begraben"

Otto Klemperer's St. Matthew Passion. Not, I fear, everybody's cup of tea. It's so so slow that it never seems to end - the man just stretches it to the point of it being slightly ludicrous and far beyond. A lot of people seem to loathe it intensely, partly because it just isn't kosher meaning authentic. The tempi are all wrong, wrong, horribly wrong. A piece of phony romantic crap, is what many might call it. A grave sin that in the age of the blessed St. Leonhardt and the beatific St. Harnoncourt.

Of this I had absolutely no idea when I purchased it. The price seemed reasonable, even fair, the cast pretty dashed nice: Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Nicolai Gedda, Walter Berry. Pretty dashed nice? I mean superb, I mean fairly stellar actually.

Had a quick listen in the record shop, seemed okay, not that I really paid much attention - I mean St. Matt is St. Matt innit? - no time for anything more than a few self-evident bars: had to be somewhere else for something ultimately unimportant and meaningless - no time to loose, as Monty Python so wisely teaches us.

Then, at home, a nasty shock.

What is this rubbish?

Is it even St. Matthew?

Doesn't sound like it.

Not even remotely.

It was. Some snatches of it I seemed to recognize vaguely, through a glass darkly as it were, others were just plain bizarre and deliberately perverse. And the whole fabric of the piece was all wrong. Stretch it too far, timewise, and it becomes shapeless, formless, a hideous grotesque heap of jumbled jarring notes with no connection whatsoever to the notes around them. It falls apart. Becomes a travesty, in fact.

However, I had purchased it, paid good money for it, and there was nothing physically wrong with the CD, so taking it back didn't seem a gentlemanly option. A clear case of lumping it, then. Alas and alack, poor little me.

Before I condemned it to eternal damnation I had another listen. Didn't seem quite as bad the second time around. Still pretty bad, though. Probably just imagining the slight decrease in absolute abysmality (if there is such a word, which I seriously doubt). The third time I played it I was no longer certain of its glorious ghastliness. So I had to listen some more. Ended up not playing much anything else between Christmas and New Year. Which is pretty much when I found myself hooked on it, once and for all.

And other, more authentic, renderings of the piece started to sound - well odd. What's the hurry? Where's the fire?

Now Klemperer seems to be quite the norm for me. It's majestic tempi seem just right to elicit every ounce of feeling from the score. And the slowness is slow no longer. It becomes something else, it very much reaches beyond. Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit, wrote Wagner in his Parsifal: Here time becomes space. The slower it flows the more solid it becomes, the more lucid, the more powerful.

The piece is, in fact, in its soul-baring simplicity, a prolonged psalm, an incantation, capturing the essence of not only religion but humanity as well. Somewhere between the lines I seem to hear Klemperer's personal anguish: the anguish of having lived a Jew through the Nazi era, the horror of the Concentration Camps and the Holocaust, the decline and fall of the entire Western Civilization - with The Bomb as the delicious cherry on the cake - the loss of any kind of faith in any kind of future.

And yet . . .

Yet it's one of the warmest, kindest, most humane performances one can imagine. The human spirit will prevail, must prevail. Does prevail. There can be no other belief for mankind. Klemeperer's St. Matthew is one of the few, very few, pieces of music that make me wonder if indeed there could be anything in religion after all.

It almost, to misquote Agent Mulder slightly, makes me want to believe.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If Klemperer is long-winded, how about yourself?