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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Johannes-Passion (St. John Passion) for soloists, choir and orchestra, BWV 245 [135:00]
Mark Padmore (tenor) - Evangelist; Christian Gerhaher (baritone) - Pilatus, Petrus; Camilla Tilling (soprano); Magdalena Kožená (mezzo); Topi Lehtipuu (tenor arias); Roderick Williams (baritone) - Jesus
Rundfunkchor Berlin (solos from Isabelle Voßkühler and Holger Marks)/Simon Halsey
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 27 February-1 March 2014, Philharmonie, Berlin
Staging: Peter Sellars assisted by Hans-Georg Lenhart
Video direction: Daniel Finkernagel and Alexander Lück
Bonus audiovisual content:
(i) Introduction by Simon Halsey [20:02]
(ii) Sir Simon Rattle with Peter Sellars in conversation with Andy King-Dabbs [32:02]
(iii) The Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall [5:06]
(iv) Behind the scenes [1:25]
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): LPCM 2.0ch, 48kHz/24bit; DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 ch, 48kHz

During Sir Simon Rattle’s tenure as its principal conductor the Berliner Philharmoniker has produced some marvellously successful concert performances of theatrical works. Bizet’s Carmen, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel (under Sir Mark Elder) and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess spring to mind.
With regard to sacred works Rattle in 2010 and 2013 gave a well received “ritualization” of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. This staging as directed by Peter Sellars splendidly presented the work's dramatic aspects. Earlier this year the same team turned its attention to another semi-staged adaptation. This time it was the St. John Passion, the fruits of which are so marvellously presented on this high quality DVD/Blu-ray set.
Bach’s 1750 obituary claimed that he had written five passions. Only the St. John Passion (1724) and the St. Matthew Passion (1727) have survived in their entirety. Two others are lost and the St. Mark Passion, BWV 247 from 1731 is incomplete. Cast in forty sections, St. John Passion Bach primarily uses texts from the St. John Gospel. The remainder is taken from a variety of sources, including Gospel of St. Matthew, Psalm 8:2 and chorale texts. Here the St. John Passion lasts just over two hours. When it was first performed in 1724 at the Good Friday Vesper service at the Nikolaikirche, Leipzig it would have been integrated into the service including sermons and communion. Consequently the service would have taken considerably longer. In the booklet there is an essay that describes the long tradition that the Berliner Philharmoniker has in playing the St. John Passion starting with a performance in 1883 just months after the founding of the orchestra.
In the interview, part of the bonus content Rattle seems upbeat about the series of three performances to be recorded in February/March at the Philharmonie. He admitted first hearing the St. John Passion rather late in life when he was aged thirty or so and said of the work “you could live twenty lives and never discover its secrets … it’s a goldmine.” He explains that this collaboration with Sellars has not resulted in a staging but a ‘ritualization’ of the score “the point is to describe the music as strongly and expressively as we can whilst staying with the frame Bach gives us.” An equally animated Sellars said he was “not trying to make music theatre but make the music visible as Bach is working in musical images.” An experienced period-instrument conductor Rattle pares down his orchestra to a relatively small ensemble, including twenty or so strings, playing with very light vibrato and prominent woodwind. Substantial in number the basso continuo expands to include organ, double bass, lute, viola da gamba, contra-bassoon, bassoon and pairs of flutes, oboes and viola d’amore. Rattle and Sellars position the orchestra on the right-hand side of the tiered stage leaving what looks like roughly two-thirds of the stage for the chorus and soloists. Playing with vitality and judicious speeds the accomplished players maintain concentration and intensity from first bar to last.
The Rundfunkchor Berlin was clearly well prepared and it shows. First chorus master Simon Halsey worked with the sixty or so members of the choir. This was then followed by two weeks with director Sellars. Demands include acting facility as well as various lying, sitting, swaying and kneeling positions whilst singing. The black-clothed choir are also called on to portray a variety of body movements and facial expressions. Throughout the numerous choruses the choir achieve an impressive unison, sounding fresh, compelling, often moving and always gratifying. Especially successful is the lucidity of meaning and propulsive power of the chorus in O hilf, Christe, Gottes Sohn, durch dein bitter Leiden (Oh, help us ,Christ, God’s Son through your bitter suffering). Two highly reliable soloists - Isabelle Voßkühler and Holger Marks - are drawn from the chorus.
Without any suggestion of a weak link Rattle has chosen his group of soloists extremely well. They demonstrate an unerring feeling for the sacred text. Telling the story in the crucial role of the Evangelist the remarkably resilient Mark Padmore demonstrates his ease with the responsibility. With his varied expression the black-clothed Padmore excels in his vividly sung recitatives, smoothly maintaining the continuity of the scenario. Excellent throughout and so highly confident is tenor Topi Lithium who has a striking stage presence. Lehtipuu is particularly impressive with his arioso Mein Herz, in dem die ganze Welt bei Jesu Leiden gleichfalls leidet (My heart, while the whole world suffers as Jesus suffers). This is most agreeably performed and with due reverence. Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, who was over mid-term in her pregnancy, brings such natural assurance and piety to her role. Sung to an extended viola da gamba solo I admired Es ist vollbracht! (It is finished!). Here the barefooted Kožená dressed in a dark red dress movingly kneels by the side of the prostrate Jesus who has been given vinegar to drink. Displaying dark-hued, fluid tone, Kožená offers expressive singing that unerringly captures both pain and anguish. A real highlight is when Jesus’s body is removed from the stage. At that point Kožená kneels and affectingly feels the ground where Jesus’s body lay.
With admirable enunciation, firm-toned Christian Gerhaher imparts innate feeling to his roles of Pilate and Peter. Accompanied by the chorus in his aria Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen (My beloved Saviour, let me ask you) Gerhaher, now dressed in a smart dark suit, looks an intensely despondent figure; he lies on the floor touching the area where Jesus died. Feeling very much at home with her part, the alert, clean and precise soprano Camilla Tilling is wearing a long, low-cut, sleeveless dress in blue. Standing amongst the recumbent chorus of people Tilling accompanied by the basso continuo gives anguished emotion to her aria Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren (Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears). She movingly articulates a sense of unbearable pain. Confident and sturdy with rock-like reliability, it is hard to fault Roderick Williams who brings an unfailingly grave quality to the role of Jesus.

Video direction from Daniel Finkernagel and Alexander Lück is generally excellent employing cameras actively, never allowing things to become monotonous or tiring. I notice that showing how the dead Jesus was removed from the stage is avoided. Clearly the intension is to concentrate on the action from the soloists and choir with virtually no close ups of the orchestral players. The sonics on these DVD and Blu-Ray discs are mightily impressive and the picture definition and colour of the high definition resolution was striking, cool and sharp.
This new release comes in a de luxe linen-bound hardcover edition. It includes two DVDs and a single Blu-ray disc in high definition video. The substantial bonus material primarily includes an introduction by Simon Halsey, and also Sir Simon Rattle with Peter Sellars in conversation with Andy King-Dabbs. In addition a seven-day ticket is provided for access to the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall. The booklet notes provide most of the essential information in addition to a number of excellent essays.
I have a couple of small quibbles. The only pieces of information I couldn’t find were the names of the bassoon and contra-bassoon players. They form part of the extensive basso continuo that Sir Simon mentions in his interview. Although the names of all the Berliner Philharmoniker members are contained in the booklet it would have been helpful to have included a list of those who played on this recording rather than those who didn’t.
Such a highly progressive work for its time, Bach’s St. John Passion, so full of terror and menace, communicates a stark message to mankind. The inspirational collaboration of Sellars’ direction with Rattle’s choral and orchestral forces has succeeded in intensifying this concert staging of Bach’s St. John Passion. This is a magnificent performance which radiates a searing devotional intensity.
Michael Cookson
Previous review: John Quinn