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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Johannes-Passion, BWV 245 [135:00]
Mark Padmore (tenor) - Evangelist; Roderick Williams (baritone) - Jesus; Camilla Tilling (soprano); Magdalena Kožená (mezzo); Topi Lehtipuu (tenor) - Arias)
Christian Gerhaher (baritone) - Pilatus, Petrus
Rundfunkchor Berlin/Simon Halsey
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle 
rec. live, 27 February – 1 March 2014, Berlin Philharmonie
Staging: Peter Sellars 
Video direction: Daniel Finkernagel and Alexander Lück
Bonus [52:00]
Introduction by Simon Halsey
Sir Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars in conversation
Subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Spanish
Region Code: 0/ABC (worldwide)
Picture (DVD): NTSC 16:9 Audio (DVD): PCM Stereo, DTS 5.1
Picture (Blu-ray): 1080i Full HD 16:9 Audio (Blu-ray): 2.0 PCM DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER RECORDINGS BPHR140031 [2 DVDs; 1 Blu-ray: 187:00]

Hot on the heels of the very fine inaugural release of the Schumann symphonies on the Berliner Philharmoniker‘s new in-house label (review) comes something very different. Here we have a live recording of Bach’s Johannes-Passion in a provocative staging by Peter Sellars. This wasn’t the first Bach collaboration between Sellars and Sir Simon Rattle: in 2010 there was a staging of the Matthäus-Passion. That production was brought to the 2014 BBC Proms, where it was enthusiastically reviewed for Seen and Heard by Colin Clarke and the 2010 original production has also been released in a similarly luxurious DVD/Blu-ray format on the orchestra’s label.
 
I’d recommend that anyone coming to this performance should first view the two bonus features. In the first, which plays for 20 minutes, Simon Halsey talks directly to camera and introduces the piece and also gives some introductory insights into what the performers were seeking to achieve. Even people who know the work well will learn something from Halsey’s perceptive and knowledgeable comments. For instance, he tells us that Peter Sellars told the choir that Bach would have been accustomed to seeing public executions in the main square at Leipzig and so the public crucifixion of Christ would have been an event to which he could relate very directly. Halsey also explains that the performers, both singers and instrumentalists, have been influenced by historical performance practice even if most of the instruments used are modern. I liked Halsey’s informal, engaging style very much. In the second feature, playing for about 33 minutes, Sir Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars discuss their approach to the piece in conversation with Andy King-Dabbs who, very sensibly, keeps his questions brief and doesn’t get in the way of the two principal speakers. What comes across very strongly is the commitment that both Rattle and Sellars have to the work. Rattle admits that he hadn’t so much as heard the Johannes-Passion until he was about thirty years old whereupon he was smitten. Sellars has come to the piece even more recently, at Rattle’s prompting. I will say straightaway that listening to them speak about the piece made me approach their performance in a positive frame of mind for whatever I was to witness I knew that it was to be the result of a great deal of thought and careful consideration on the part of both of them. I don’t know if either of them is a religious believer but there’s no doubt that they believe in the work and Sellars in particular discusses the story that is told therein with great intensity.
 
I suppose that what we witness in this performance is a staged or semi-staged performance. I say “suppose” because I’m not quite sure that’s a just description. Rattle relates that when he and Sellars were preparing their 2010 account of the Matthäus-Passion a cellist in the Berliner Philharmoniker, who was doubtful as to the merits of the proposal, coined the term “ritualization”. Sadly, that player, Jan Diesselhorst, died prematurely before those 2010 performances. What he would have made of the Sellars/Rattle approach to the Johannes-Passion we’ll never know but it seems to me that his concept of “ritualization” is extraordinarily perceptive.
 
I haven’t yet seen the film of the 2010 Matthäus-Passion but, despite the manifold differences between Bach’s two Passion settings I imagine there’s a significant degree of continuity between the two Sellars productions, not least because Rattle here uses essentially the same soloists. There are two changes, one of them enforced. In 2010 Thomas Quasthoff sang the bass arias and Christian Gerhaher sang the role of Jesus. Following Quasthoff’s retirement from singing Gerhaher has now taken over the singing of the arias, as well as taking the roles of Peter and Pilate while Roderick Williams has been brought in to portray Christ.
 
I’ve heard the Johannes-Passion many times and I own several recordings of the work. I approached this performance with some scepticism. I was concerned that Bach’s great sacred work might be sensationalised or even trivialised. Indeed, just a few days before receiving this set I read a pretty scathing review of the Proms performance of the Matthäus-Passion in which the Daily Telegraph’s highly respected critic, Rupert Christiansen, took a very different stance to Seen and Heard’s Colin Clarke. Christiansen excoriated the production, damning it as a “tasteless spectacle” though he was more complimentary about the musical performance. If the results that Sellars has achieved with the Johannes-Passion are broadly comparable – as I suspect they are – then I can understand where Mr Christiansen is coming from: people will probably love or hate this vision of the Johannes-Passion. However, while I certainly don’t agree with every aspect of the production I found that much of my scepticism was swept away.
 
It would take too long to describe the production in detail and, in any case, I’m wary of lessening the impact for other people. The action takes place on a bare open stage with Rattle and his players off to the right hand side and the chorus, who are all dressed in black, placed to the left for most of the time. Roderick Williams, as Christ, is usually accompanied by Topi Lehtipuu who acts as his gaoler. Williams is treated roughly during this production and is frequently manhandled by his captors: for much of the time he is blindfolded and has his hands tied behind his back; he spends much of Part II lying on his back. All this, I think, is very credible as Christ is thereby portrayed as a genuine captive. Mark Padmore often delivers his narration from within the action – he rarely, if ever, sings directly to the audience. Again, I think that’s credible: we should recall that the Disciple who Jesus loved (as St John sometimes described himself) witnessed the drama unfold at first hand; remember, it was he who got Peter admitted to the High Priest’s house at an early stage in the interrogation process and he was also there at the foot of the cross.
 
Christian Gerhaher occupies an important part in this production. Peter Sellars explains, during the introductory conversation, that he envisioned two characters – Peter in Part I and Pilate in Part II – who stand next to Jesus, knowing what is the right thing to do but, because of various pressures on each of them, neither does the Right Thing. I must say I hadn’t thought of this concept but it makes a lot of sense and Sellars talks very movingly about it We see relatively little of the two female characters – Camilla Tilling as Christ’s mother, Mary and Magdalena Kožená as Mary Magdalene – for each comes on stage essentially when it’s time for their respective arias.
 
The chorus plays a crucial part throughout. In particular they act as vital protagonists during the trial scenes – or, more properly, in this case, the interrogation scenes – of Part II. The way they jab their fingers towards Christ in ‘Wäre dieser nicht in Übeltäter’ adds graphically to the intensity of their singing. Later on, when casting lots for Christ’s robe in ‘Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen’, they mime the rolling of the dice while their singing is light and malevolently playful: this is a Bank Holiday crowd but one suffused with malice.
 
One aspect of the production calls for particular comment. Sellars comments that Jesus didn’t have a formal trial – which I suppose is true; he certainly didn’t receive due process. Instead Sellars provocatively likens his captivity to Extraordinary Rendition, suggesting that the captive is taken from one interrogation basement to another. So, when Jesus is being questioned by Pilate the setting is akin to a police interrogation room from which Pilate emerges from time to time to confront the mob. Through this device Sellars achieves an extraordinarily intimate, yet sinister and claustrophobic interrogation atmosphere: it’s Pilate one-on-one with his prisoner though the Evangelist is usually in close attendance. It’s a provocative approach but I came to find it compelling and convincing. Sellars also adopts a pragmatic and, I think, successful, approach to staging the death of Christ.
 
However, I don’t agree with every aspect of his interpretation. In particular I dislike intensely the way in which the aria ‘Von den Stricken’ is depicted. I suspect Sellars has taken his cue from the Gospel episode when Mary Magdalene washes Christ’s feet with her tears. However, he has Magdalena Kožená coiling herself round Roderick Williams in a way that really doesn’t trouble to hide sexual overtones. It’s overdone and distasteful. Later there is, I think, not so much a miscalculation as an inaccuracy. After Christ, speaking from the cross, has entrusted his mother to the care of St John, the Evangelist leads Camilla Tilling (Mary) away from the foot of the cross and offstage. Since the various Gospel narratives make no mention of this and imply that Mary saw her son die this makes little dramatic sense. But aside from these two reservations and one or two less important ones, I found Sellars’ production was convincing.
 
What of the performance? The singing of the Rundfunkchor Berlin is magnificent throughout. They have to sing everything from memory, of course, and have an awful lot of complicated choreography to remember and that only heightens my admiration for their contribution. Clearly Simon Halsey has trained them marvellously The Berliner Philharmoniker, greatly reduced in size on this occasion, plays superbly; the various obbligati are marvellously played. Topi Lehtipuu sings vividly and his account of ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’ is a particularly good example of the producer’s aim that in the da capo sections of arias – and choruses – neither the action nor the way in which the music is sung should simply replicate the first statement of the material. Christian Gerhaher projects Pilate’s dilemma very acutely. Once or twice, notably in ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’ I had the sense, perhaps mistakenly, that vocally he wasn’t completely at ease but overall his performance leaves a strong imprint.
 
I was less taken with the ladies, I’m afraid. Magdalena Kožená is a fine artist but on this occasion perhaps she was over-directed. In particular I didn’t care for her quasi-operatic, vibrato-rich delivery of ‘Es ist vollbracht’. Camilla Tilling is also prone to over-emphasis. Her ‘Zerfließe, mein Herze’, delivered amidst a wasteland of dead bodies, is very anguished but I prefer to hear the music delivered with a gentle sense of unbearable loss.
 
Roderick Williams is a marvellous Jesus. He has just the bearing for the role – remember Christ was a young man, in his early thirties - and vocally he’s on top form. The dramatic nature of the production enables him to do something that can’t really be attempted in a straightforward concert context, namely to portray a character who is increasingly at the end of his physical tether. Thus when he delivers his mother into the keeping of John he sounds absolutely drained, though the singing remains expertly focused. A little earlier on, when he tells Pilate that he could have no power over him [Jesus] unless the power were given to him by a higher authority – ‘Du hättest keine Macht über mich’ – his tremulous, halting delivery vividly conveys the impression of a spent man who is nearly broken.
 
The performance revolves around Mark Padmore. He already has a great reputation as an Evangelist in both Bach Passions and in a conventional concert context he was marvellous in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s live recording of this work a few years ago (review). Here, however, he’s able to use more than vocal colouring and artistry to bring the narration to life and he does so superbly. His delivery of the narration is vivid and utterly compelling. With this performance Padmore confirms his stature as one of the finest Evangelists – possibly the finest Evangelist – currently before the public. Superb throughout, his performance reaches its peak in the way he delivers the passages of recitative that depict the death of Christ and those that follow his death. At the end of the performance, as he and Rattle acknowledge the initial applause, he looks completely drained, both mentally and physically, having given us all he has to give. I was greatly moved by his performance in which he is supported by a very fine continuo team. It’s worth saying that at times the singing of recitative by Padmore and his colleagues is more slowly paced than would be the case in a concert performance; this is in order to accommodate the physical action. I don’t find this a drawback, though I might if I’d simply been listening to an audio version of the recording.
 
Sir Simon Rattle’s direction of the score is sure footed and full of conviction. There are times when he paces the music a little more broadly than one is accustomed to hearing in modern day performances. Furthermore, though the performance has certainly benefited from historically informed techniques Rattle is not shy of cultivating beauty of sound for expressive effect, nor should he be.
 
I should just say a word about the presentational aspects. I watched a little of the performance on DVD, which was perfectly satisfactory, but most of my viewing was done using the Blu-ray disc. The sound is excellent and the pictures are sharp and clear. The camera work is absolutely first class: there’s not a redundant or superfluous shot during the entire performance and Sellars’ production is marvellously conveyed. The presentation is lavish. As with the Schumann symphonies, the discs are housed in a linen hardback book and the excellent documentary notes are in German and English.
 
I approached this performance with some uncertainty but I have been convinced by it. I particular, I found myself drawn into the narrative - and into Bach’s contemplation of the narrative through arias and chorales – in a completely new way. Rattle and Sellars are at pains to point out that the Johannes-Passion is a radical, disturbing and often in Part II a violent work. Here it’s brought vividly and movingly to life. I have found this a compelling and moving experience and I urge everyone who loves Bach’s inexhaustible masterpiece to see it.
 
John Quinn