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Holy Apostle Matthew
12 Apr 2007

Passion, pain paired in Berlin

It was, of course, a coincidence; on the other hand, on Berlin’s vital, vibrant and all-encompassing arts scene one is continually overwhelmed by new perspectives on the creative process and its product.

On April 4, for example, Kurt Nagano conducted the Deutsche Sinfonie Orchester in Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew in the now 40-year-old Philharmonie, widely cherished as the world’s most perfect concert hall.

Earlier on that day the press was invited to preview an exhibition in the Hamburger Bahnhof, one of the many sites of Berlin’s National Gallery. Title — and subject — of the show, a collaboration with the Charité’ the Berlin hospital that dates from the 18th century — is “Schmerz/Pain,” the phenomenon that for centuries has perplexed doctors — and inspired artists.

For the visitor the juxtaposition of “Schmerz” and Bach’s Passion enriched the Easter week with provocation and profundity, for the opening section of the exhibition is focused on Christ’s Crucifixion, the primary experience of pain so central to Christian culture. Paintings on display reach from an anonymous 1470 work to Francis Bacon’s 1965 “Crucifixion” triptych. And the interest that modern medicine has taken in this chapter of intense suffering is documented through a multitude of references, including the 1948 experiment of Frederick T. Zugibe, an American forensic specialist who suspended his assistant from a cross to measure the forces involved. Also on display is a 1700 study by Martin von Cochen, who assembled a catalog of 5475 wounds inflicted on Christ’s body, plus 110 blows to his face.

The greater issue within the exhibition is the degree to which the torture of Christ has tempered the approach to pain within Western culture. Also of concern is the consequent emphasis upon compassion for this miraculous man-become-God. To the musical-minded, however, of central interest is a small room focused on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Du”rer’s woodcut series on the Crucifixion hang on the walls. A page of the Passion manuscript from the German State Library is on display, and at four locations open scores and headsets pinpoint sections of the work that concentrate on Christ’s physical suffering. (In an adjacent room Nathalie Djurberg’s cartoon video of a woman whipping a man offsets the solemnity of Bach. The caption reads: “Just because you are suffering doesn’t make you Jesus.”)

A unique — even if unintended — prologue to the St. Matthew Passion, “Schmerz” left the listener doubly receptive to Nagano’s carefully understated interpretation of the work. Indeed, although performed on modern instruments (except for the group of period instruments that accompanied arias), the performance underscored the wide influence that the early-music movement has had on performances of Bach. Nagano often stood near motionless during arias and was otherwise content to involve himself only in choruses and chorales, the latter sung with winning innocence by the Windsbach Boys Choir.

Yet his reserve in no way reduced the drama of the score that is the closest Bach came to writing an opera. Tenor Martin Petzold brought “you-are-there” urgency to the Evangelist, suggesting that he is more an on-the-scene reporter than a mere narrator. And Dietrich Henschel, elsewhere a seductive Giovanni and as a Lieder artist often called the successor to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, was a monumental Christ.

Nagano’s St. Matthew was one of a plethora of Berlin Bach performances during the Easter season, a richness that emphasizes the Bach tradition in the city that goes back to Felix Mendelssohn’s reintroduction of the then largely forgotten work in 1829, 102 years after its premiere in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche. This “come-back,” which led one critic to place Bach in the company of Shakespeare, amazed even Eduard Devrient, the bass who sang Christ in the 1829 performance. During rehearsals, however, he had questioned just what this 20-year-old “Jew boy” was up to with this daring endeavor.

Of course, Mendelssohn — his father had converted to Christianity — knew great music when he saw it. At 14 he had asked for a copy of the St. Matthew score for Christmas and a year later he, who on a visit to Weimar had played from the “Well-Tempered Clavier” for the aged Goethe, and sister Fanny joined the Singakadamie, which sang Bach — including the St. John Passion — for its own pleasure, but never in public. (Mendelssohn’s grandmother Sara Levi was once a favorite student of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.)

Bach — as Nagano made clear with this Passion week performance that packed the Philharmonie — remains a way of life in Berlin. “Schmerz” is on display through August 5. The Hamburger Bahnhof, Invalidenstrasse 50-51, is a short walk from the Hauptbahnhof, Berlin’s spectacular new central railway station.

Wes Blomster

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