It was only quite recently that I gave a warm welcome to the Simon Rattle/Peter Sellars ‘ritualization’ of Bach’s Johannes-Passion (review
). That production was preceded – and, indeed, inspired - by a collaboration on the Matthäus-Passion in 2010 and the Berliner Philharmoniker has lost no time in releasing that earlier performance on DVD and Blu-ray. The casts are virtually identical with the exception that by the time the Johannes-Passion was performed Thomas Quasthoff had retired from singing, which necessitated some changes in the line-up of bass soloists.
When reviewing the Johannes-Passion I admitted that I approached the production with some scepticism; indeed, I was quite apprehensive. Having been won over by the Sellars/Rattle approach to that work I had no qualms about watching their exploration of the Matthäus-Passion; on the contrary, I was keen to experience it. Nonetheless, I was quite intrigued by the prospect because the Matthäus-Passion is the more contemplative and reflective of Bach’s surviving complete Passion settings. The Johannes-Passion, which is more concise and, arguably, the more dramatic of the two might have seemed a more obvious choice for ‘ritualization’. How would Sellars treat the long, often reflective span of the Matthäus-Passion?
For the benefit of those who may be unaware of how he approached the Johannes-Passion perhaps I should just explain the concept of ‘ritualization’, a word that has been chosen deliberately to emphasise that this is something rather more than, say, a semi-staged performance of an opera. The term was coined during the rehearsals for the 2010 performances of the Matthäus-Passion by Jan Diesselhorst, a cellist in the Berliner Philharmoniker. Diesselhorst was doubtful as to the merits of the proposal, though I believe he approached the project with an open mind and it was he who came up with the term ‘ritualization’. Sadly, Diesselhorst died prematurely before he could take part in those 2010 performances, one of which is preserved in this film.
Anyone who has seen the film of the Johannes-Passion will note a number of what I might perhaps call stylistic similarities between that production and this Matthäus-Passion. However, these similarities are general in nature; there are important specific differences. Perhaps the key difference lies in the treatment of the characters of Jesus and the Evangelist. In the Johannes-Passion Roderick Williams, as Jesus, was physically involved in the ‘action’ and, in fact, he was treated quite roughly, as a prisoner might have been. Here, by contrast, Christian Gerhaher is physically separated from all the other performers. He sings his music from a balcony above the stage, on the left hand side of the platform. Furthermore, he makes no attempt whatsoever at acting or gesturing; he delivers his recitative while standing stock still with his arms by his side. Thus, I suspect, does Sellars indicate that Jesus was of this world yet set apart from it.
That treatment of Jesus has significant ramifications for the role of the Evangelist. In the Johannes-Passion Mark Padmore was the disciple John, a witness to the story and someone completely caught up in it. This time, in addition to his narration Padmore enacts the actions of Jesus. So we see him not only relating such episodes as the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden and the scourging of Christ but also at the same time he is the physical embodiment of Jesus. And at the end, after Jesus has been put to death it is Padmore who is laid in the tomb. It’s an intriguing way of depicting the story. Some may not be convinced but I thought it a convincing approach, especially as it’s part and parcel of the way in which Christian Gerhaher has been directed.
Another interesting difference between the two productions concerns the arias. In this present production the obbligato instrumentalists, all of whom play from memory, appear as the partners or even the alter egos of the solo singers, usually in very close physical proximity to them. It’s very thoughtful concept and one which I think works very well.
I don’t agree with everything in the production and, as with the previous production my reservations centre chiefly around Magdalena Kožená. Her singing is superb but I think that some of her acting is either excessive or inappropriate, even if she is portraying Mary Magdalene. In my notes I wrote that she is “over-directed” in ‘Buß und Reu’ and the preceding recitativo. Even allowing for the fact that she is portraying a penitent woman her interaction here with Mark Padmore as Evangelist/Jesus is rather over the top to my way of thinking. However, when I wrote the comment about being over-directed I hadn’t watched the extended conversation between Peter Sellars and Simon Halsey. During that discussion Halsey praises the director for not so much telling people what to do as sowing seeds. So maybe it is Miss Kožená who has set her stamp on the Magdalene character – a bit too excessively for my taste. I’m even less persuaded by the way Kožená and/or Sellars approaches ‘Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand’ in Part II. This is depicted far too forcefully by
Kožená, not just vocally but also in her acting; dancing round the stage surely has no place at this point. On the other hand, she’s very involving in the preceding number, ‘Ach Golgotha’ and a few minutes earlier as she sings ‘Können Tränen meiner Wangen’ she is depicting Magdalene consoling the scourged Jesus (Padmore) and the commitment of her acting there can’t be faulted. She sings ‘Erbarme dich’ most expressively, partnered perfectly by the silky violin obbligato of Daniel Stabrawa.
As I said, my reservations about Magdalena Kožená have nothing to do with her singing, which is compelling throughout. The other soloists are equally fine. Camilla Tilling crowns her impressive contribution with an intense and deeply moving rendition of ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben’. She puts across Bach’s austere yet beautiful music with great eloquence and having flautist Emmanuel Pahud literally at her shoulder to play the desolate obbligato draws the audience even further into the intensity of the moment. Topi Lehtipuu’s account of ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’, with the superb oboist Albrecht Meyer in close attendance, suggests tellingly the mix of resolution and human frailty in the text. Later on, ’Geduld, wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen’ is another high point. Despite the enormous technical demands of the music Lehtipuu achieves eloquence and makes sense of this difficult aria. Here gamba player Hille Perl is his expert partner.
The set offers a welcome opportunity to remind ourselves how badly we miss the artistry of Thomas Quasthoff since his retirement from singing. Everything he does here is exemplary, the tone warm and full and the line always evenly produced. ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz’ is eloquently done – and Hille Perl’s gamba obbligato is a fine foil to his singing. Earlier he projects strongly in ‘Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder!’ Christian Gerhaher is a fine Jesus. He delivers his recitative with simple dignity and with good expression yet there’s a complete absence of artifice. I feel he’s not only ideal for the role but also ideal for the role in this production.
For all the excellence of the other solo singers the production is dominated by the Evangelist of Mark Padmore. He gives a riveting performance. His singing is superb with every inflection, every nuance and colour brought to bear on the music. It’s an extremely sensitive and detailed reading of the part and the intensity that he brings to the role is tremendously impressive. But this production requires him to go beyond ‘merely’ singing the part; he’s required to add a quasi-operatic dimension by his gestures and physical characterisation. Indeed, the production makes significant physical demands on him yet never does the quality or integrity of his singing falter. His diction is exemplary and he displays rare intelligence and understanding in his delivery of the recitative. He not only lives and breathes Bach’s music, he inhabits it. In this production he delivers substantially more of the recitative to the audience whereas in the Johannes-Passion he rarely addressed the audience. As in that other production he’s required to interact almost consistently with the other performers and everything he does is completely convincing. This is a consummate performance, the fruit of long experience in the role allied with the intellectual curiosity and musicianship to enable him to build on that experience, re-think it and in so doing to take his interpretation to a new, deeper level. If anything Padmore here surpasses his magnificent achievement in Johannes-Passion. Is there a finer, more complete Evangelist currently before the public? I rather doubt it.
The singing of the Rundfunkchor Berlin is magnificent. I was amazed to learn during the bonus feature that the choir had never sung the work before – indeed, it had been some time since the Berliner Philharmoniker had played it. The choir sings from memory and both the choruses and the chorales are done marvellously – and with a great deal of variety. The two orchestras play on modern instruments apart from some specialist instruments as the viola da gamba. However, the experience that Sir Simon Rattle has gained from working with ensembles such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment pays dividends here and the playing takes due – but mot excessive – note of historically informed performance techniques. One thing that I like about this performance – and it was a characteristic of the Johannes-Passion too – is that Rattle is not afraid to encourage his singers and players to be expressive. I have to say that there are some occasions when the camera is on Rattle and he looks as if he’s conducting a Mahler symphony but, rest assured, the performance doesn’t sound that way and such gestures are consistent with his evident empathy with the music and the drama of the story.
The bonus feature is a very substantial conversation between Peter Sellars and Simon Halsey. Though it’s lengthy I found it absorbing. This time, as I had some idea of what to expect from the production, I watched it after the performance. I was seriously impressed by the passion Peter Sellars expresses for the music and his evident sincerity. Just as impressive is the evident deep thought he has given to the work. He reminds us that he’s been involved with the sacred music of Bach for many years, going right back to the decade that he worked with Emmanuel Church, Boston, where the music director, the late Craig Smith performed a Bach cantata in the liturgy every Sunday for over thirty years. That’s where Sellars took his first steps in staging Bach cantatas, though Smith would never agree to a staging of the Matthäus-Passion. Sellars sets before us a modern re-interpretation – or re-imagining - of the work but anyone listening to his comments about it will soon appreciate that this is not a trendy, faddish production seeking sensationalism or pushing an agenda for its own sake. Simon Halsey makes it clear that this has been a collaborative venture from the start and the artists – not just the conductor and soloists – have been encouraged to input their ideas. For instance, Sellars spent no less than eight days with the choir studying the text and music. As I’ve indicated, there are a few aspects of the production with which I don’t agree but overall I found it compelling. I was hooked.
I watched this performance on Blu-ray – I viewed the bonus feature on DVD. The Blu-ray offers excellent sound and crisp, clear pictures. The camera work is expert, always to the point and never distracting. The packaging and presentation of this release is lavish, as is usual with this label, but the performance deserves nothing less.
I would urge those who love this inexhaustible masterpiece to view this production. You wouldn’t want to experience the Matthäus-Passion this way every time but I think you will find that it obliges you to think afresh about the work and about the story it tells. I readily confess that I was wary of Peter Sellars’ approach to Bach but having seen the results previously in the companion film of the Johannes-Passion and now in this gripping and superbly performed production I think he has expanded my appreciation and love of Bach’s Passions in a way that I would never have expected.