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07 Sep 2014

St Matthew Passion, Prom 66

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.

Bach St Matthew Passion, Prom 66

A review by Robert Hugill


Originally created in 2010 and directed by Peter Sellars, this was far more than a concert staging; it was a fully dramatic production which sought to wring every last ounce of emotion out of Bach's epic work.

There was a strong cast and all but one had appeared in the original production, with Christian Gerhaher as Christus, Mark Padmore as the Evangelist, and Camilla Tilling, Magdalena Kožená, Topi Lehtipuu and Eric Owens as the soloists. Almost as important was the choral contribution from the Berlin Radio Choir, singing off the book like the rest of the cast.

The first surprise was how few forces Rattle was using. Each orchestra had just 15 strings in it and the choirs numbered 30 people each. The sound was lithe and light, fluid and flexible, with a nice bounce to it. But this was a very modern sound, giving the Bach a smoothness and surface polish which does not exist in period performances as the instruments die away faster. This was modern symphonic Bach, with intelligent nods to historical performance but without throwing out everything we might expect from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Needless to say, all of the many instrumental obbligatos were superbly played, often from memory as the instrumentalist stood out from the orchestra and joined the vocal soloists creating a real sense of duets and chamber music. Despite the large size of the Royal Albert Hall, this performance had many moments of intimate, chamber communication.

The choirs and orchestras were ranged round the edge of the stage, up onto the ramped seating. There were boxes for the singers to sit on (rarely used as they were often in motion), and the central stage area had an array of larger boxes (the biggest doubled as last supper table, bier and even massage table). All participants were in black, with the female soloists in gowns but with bare feet. My companion complained about the cut and fit of Padmore's trousers, and I noted that he was wearing brown shoes.

My problem with the staging was that it was never quite clear who these people are, and why they were reacting in such an extreme manner. Mark Padmore's Evangelist not only narrated the story but took on the role of Christ, enacting all of the drama, whilst Christian Gerhaher's Christus remained separated from the drama and never participated. That this was a re-enactment rather than a dramatisation was clear from the amount of meta-narrative. From the opening it was clear that the choirs were reacting to events which had already happened, but which the drama had not yet described. The solos were staged as being part of the drama, I lost count of the number of times Magdalena Kožená (singing the alto solos) had to rush on tossing her hair looking anxious, to run distractedly round the stage and sing a consoling aria to Mark Padmore. The arias were sung not as contemplations and meditations on the drama, but as part of it.

And this was the problem, everyone was reacting all the time, everyone was emotional all the time and there was a great deal of stage movement. Whilst, for some members of the audience it was clear that Sellars' dramatic narrative helped them appreciate Bach's work, for me it got in the way. There were many times during the performance when I simply closed my eyes and listened to the music.

There was indeed much to enjoy. Camilla Tilling made a poised soprano soloist, her cool demeanour belying the emotionalism in her voice. At times she sounded a little pressed, but then according to Sellars' narrative, she had every right to be. 'Blute nur' was sung with slim-line, elegant tones whilst there was a lovely dancing quality to 'Ich will dir mein Herze schenken' with some lovely perky wind solos. In 'Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben' the sense of a duet with the flautist, who stood on stage next to her, was palpable and the two combined with a profoundly expressive sense of line.

Whilst I might have found Magdalena Kožená's dramatics rather distracting, she was truly wonderful as the alto soloist. Her voice has a slight, interesting edge to it which I found very appealing and which made the quieter numbers profoundly expressive. From her first aria,'Buss' und Reu' she displayed a fabulous technique, singing the passagework smoothly and evenly (even though in that first aria she was giving Mark Padmore a massage). Here, and elsewhere, the music was always very light on its feet. 'Erbarme dich' was thankfully a quiet pause, with Kožená stationary on stage (for once) and joined by the violinist for a sublime duet. However, during Kožená's intensely intent account of 'Konnen Tranen meiner Wangen', Mark Padmore was distractingly in agony (he'd just been scourged) the whole time, and Kozena seemed to be cleaning his back.

The problem for me was that, here and elsewhere, the music is not a dramatic reaction to the events just proceeding but a personal contemplation, albeit a highly emotional one. By the time we reached 'Sehet! Sehet! Jesus hat die Hand', I was growing tired of Kožená's she ran around hugging everyone. But if you closed your eyes, the aria was musically sublime.

The duet for soprano and alto at the end of part one, 'So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen' was expressive but lacked the contemplative poise which others have brought to it. Instead it was staged as high drama, with the two soloists rushing around the stage, giving an emotionalism which found its way into the music as well.

Topi Lehtipuu's tenor seemed to be having a slightly edgy day, there was a tense quality to the upper part of his voice which did not always lend itself to the music. But there was still a great deal to enjoy in his performance. He brought a nicely dramatic edge to 'O Schmerz' and 'Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen' and sang the recitative 'Mein Jesus scheigt' direct to the audience which gave it intensity, though the aria 'Geduld, Geduld', was sung to the solo gamba player, with the tenseness in his voice giving the aria a nicely nervy quality.

Eric Owens was the new member of the cast, replacing Thomas Quasthoff who had appeared in the 2010 production. Owens gave a committed, highly emotional and expressive performance but I found that his voice had a tightness and a dryness to it which did not appeal. Mind you, he had quite a physical role; during 'Gerne will ich mich bequemen' he was physically manipulating the prone Mark Padmore. In 'Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder', the solo violinist almost took the lead, playing aggressively at the prone Eric Owens.

Christian Gerhaher was a subtle and moving Christus, but he was placed behind the orchestra at the top of the ramped seating, and did not take part in the action. For part two he sang from various parts of the auditorium effectively a disembodied voice. I have great admiration for Gerhaher and have heard him give some superb performances. In the context of a simple concert performance of the work, his Christus would have been intensely moving, but he didn't stand a chance in Peter Sellars' highly emotional world and effectively he was repeatedly upstaged by Padmore and the rest of the action.
Mark Padmore was simply a miracle as the Evangelist. Whatever you thought of Sellars' staging, it was apparent that Padmore did everything that Sellars wanted. He created an intense, highly emotional almost overwrought protagonist which was played out in the music too. Padmore still has the apparently effortless control of his high register and the ability to colour notes, so that his Evangelist was highly communicative and able to fill the Royal Albert Hall with a whisper. I have heard Padmore sing the role before, and no doubt will do so again, but this was truly a performance like no other.

The singers of the Berlin Radio Choir were called upon to fully participate in the drama. They were not innocent bystanders simply commentating, they were there. The result was a highly dramatic and highly emotional performance, one that was visually, rather wearing, but which reaped rich rewards in the highly engaged vocal performance from the singers. This was some of the most intent, vivid Bach singing I have heard in a long time. not just in terms of dramatics, but in the quiet moments to. Some of the turbae were truly shocking, whilst some of the chorales were hushed and simple. For the opening and closing choruses of part one, they were joined by the choristers (both boys and girls) from Wells Cathedral and Winchester Cathedral.

The smaller solo roles were all well taken by members of the Berlin Radio Choir, each creating a little moment of drama. Jorge Schneider was Judas, Soren von Billerbeck was Peter, Axek Scheidig was Pilate, Christine Lichtenberg and Holger Marks were the Witnesses, David Stingl and Thomas Futzner were the Chief Priests, Isabelle Vosskuhler and Christina Bischoff were the Maids and Bianca Reim was Pilate's wife. The instrumental soloists were Daniel Stabrawa and Daishin Kashimoto (violins), Emmanuel Pahud and Michael Hasel (flutes), Albrech Mayer and Andreas Wiggman (oboes and oboes d'amore), Domink Wollenweber and Christoph Hartmann (oboes di caccia), Stefan Scheigert and Markus Weidmann (bassoons), Ulrich Wolff (viola da gamba) and the continuo group was Martin Lohr (cello), Lynda Sayce (lute), Raphael Alpermann and Jorg-Andreas Botticher (organs), Matthew McDonald (double bass).

My problem with the performance was that Sellars was forcing us to think about Bach's work in a particular way. Rather than universalising it, he was making us view it through his eyes. This was typified by the way the ending was staged, forcing the audience to sit in reverent silence at the end rather than being able to burst into applause.

Robert Hugill

Christian Gerhaher: Christus, Mark Padmore: Evangelist; Camilla Tilling, Magdalena Kozena, Topi Lehtipuu, Eric Owens; Berlin Radio Choir, Wells Cathedral Choristers, Winchester Cathedral Choristers. Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Sir Simon Rattle: conductor, Peter Sellars: director. BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, 6 September 2014.

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