JS BACH St Matthew Passion BWV244
The conversation between Peter Sellars and Simon Halsey articulates a lot of what’s special about this ‘ritualisation’ of the Great Passion, for observers as much as participants, and the whole package would be worth acquiring just for Sellars’s comparison of Furtwängler’s 1953 performance with early R & B. The long rehearsal period, the expertise of everyone involved and the authority of the solo singers: all this quickly becomes evident. Perhaps this rare and truly collaborative enterprise is why at some grand moments it still lacks direction, though not precision; wherever the musicians are placed in relation to the conductor, unlike Katie Mitchell’s production for Glyndebourne, they always stay in touch with the pulse. Singing from memory, the members of the Berliner Rundfunkchor become mourners, avengers and bewildered onlookers, participants despite themselves; the turba choruses are anything but ‘fast and loud and stupid’, as Sellars characterises them in the received ‘anti-Semitic performance tradition’. Bear with him.
The emphasis on the human actors and cost of their actions places the Evangelist centre stage; the complex identity of Christus is reduced by placing him away from this action, on a balcony, which also mutes the detailed vulnerability of Christian Gerhaher’s singing, while Mark Padmore’s responses are magnified to a degree that will make all but the most blasé listener cringe, either with sympathetic pain or with embarrassment. All the soloists embody their roles to an an engrossing degree of identification. Sceptics should try ‘Buss und Reu’, which becomes a song of love from the woman with the costly ointment. Magdalena KoΩená’s turn as a disturbed bag lady, creeping on and accosting the Evangelist with her love and her sorrow, puts living flesh on the aria’s ‘cleaving of heart and mind’, according to Sellars, and his concept of Bach as ‘more the composer of doubt than affirmation’. In that sense, this is a defiantly modern performance, one that exults in disturbance and the irony that arises from a deeply intimate staging within the round of the Berlin Philharmonie: appropriate in terms of architectural politics but jarringly opulent and public. Of previous attempts on DVD to ritualise the Passion, the vanishing white space of Hugo Kach’s staging for Karl Richter and the claustrophobic black studio of Jonathan Miller’s BBC production are more apt to the musical values they enshrine. Perhaps revisiting the staging, as Sellars desires, will bring a closer correspondence between instrumental and choral phrasing – the Berlin Phil are still the Berlin Phil – and will surely enrich Rattle’s handling of the big choruses. But ‘work in progress’ rarely operates at so exalted a level.