Bach’s “St John Passion” with Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars

01 Mar 2014

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Johann Sebastian Bach
    St John Passion, BWV 245 (135 min.)

    Camilla Tilling Soprano, Magdalena Kožená Mezzo-Soprano, Mark Padmore Tenor (Evangelist), Topi Lehtipuu Tenor (Arias), Roderick Williams Baritone (Jesus), Christian Gerhaher Baritone (Pilatus, Petrus), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master, Peter Sellars Staging

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    Sir Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars in conversation with Andy King-Dabbs (32 min.)

Strictly speaking, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passions – with their recitatives, arias and choruses – contain the central components of a dramatic work. And in actual fact some Bach contemporaries found the pieces (too) operatic, as evidenced by a report from the Saxon pastor Christian Gerber in 1732 about a performance of the St. Matthew Passion: “When this theatrical music began, all the people were thrown into the greatest bewilderment, they looked at one another and said: ‘What will become of this?’ An elderly widow of the nobility exclaimed: ‘God save us, my children! It’s just as if we were at the opera.’”

The passion story with its truly dramatic action evokes in the listeners almost of its own accord imaginary scenery in which Jesus, Peter, Pilate, the Apostles and the people seem to act as if on a stage. As early as 1921, Ferruccio Busoni was thinking about a dramatic performance of the St. Matthew Passion, at which the dramatic action would take place on two stages built on top of each other.

In 2010, Peter Sellars staged the work at Salzburg Easter Festival and in the Berlin Philharmonie. It has also been released as a DVD production. In this concert, it is the turn of Bach’s St. John Passion to appear on the “philharmonic stage”: “It is not theatre. It is a prayer, a meditation,” the director says. Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker. In addition to the Rundfunkchor Berlin, the singers include an ensemble of soloists which, with the exception of Roderick Williams, was previously heard in Sellars’s realisation of the St Matthew Passion.

Bold, Powerful and Poetic

Johann Sebastian Bach’s St John Passion

In May 1723 Johann Sebastian Bach left the royal court of Anhalt-Köthen to take up his duties as “Cantor zu St. Thomae und Director Musices” in Leipzig. At the age of 38, he apparently intentionally took on a workload more intense than anything he had been accustomed to thus far. He had resolved to produce a comprehensive repertoire of church music during his first years as director of music at St Thomas’s Church which he could use in the long term for the obligatory performances at worship services on Sundays and feast days. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not want to write new pieces week by week, year by year, but rather compose a repertory of works, to be completed in three to five years, which would then be available to him for repeat performances.

The St JohnPassion was heard for the first time on Good Friday, 7 April 1724, at St Nicholas’s Church in Leipzig. It was a great success for the St Thomas Kantor, undoubtedly inspired by the prodigious number of cantatas he produced during his first year in Leipzig. Nevertheless, this opus is perhaps the most prominent example of the fact that Bach continually revised his repertoire and tried to improve it, which was particularly true of the large vocal works. In this connection, the St JohnPassion was a first work – a composition of the highest quality, yet one on which he long experimented and in the end never finished. From 1724 to the last performance conducted by Bach in 1749, five versions of the St JohnPassion can be distinguished.

Focus on the Kingship of Christ

Despite its chequered history, the StJohnPassion displays a high level of subtle musical development and an extraordinary degree of thematic originality in all its sections. This is demonstrated above all by the fact that Bach takes into account the theological idiosyncrasy of John’s Gospel as compared with the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. John emphasizes the sovereignty of Jesus and expresses it in the Passion story by describing the trial before the high priests and Pilate in considerable detail, leading to the central question: “Are you a king?” Jesus answers: “You say that I am a king.” Following the Gospel, Bach also attaches great importance to the dialogic sections of the trial, makes extensive use of the opportunities for dramatic treatment and, in particular, adopts the theme of Christ’s kingship.

The opening chorus already takes up this idea and emphatically stresses the invocation “Lord, our ruler, whose name is glorious in all the world” – extremely unusual for the first movement of a Passion setting. The key aria after Jesus’s death, on the words “It is finished”, also revolves around the kingship of Christ. Bach conceives the movement as a da capo aria in the style of a French tombeau – a solemn piece commemorating the death of an esteemed figure – but deliberately breaks with the conventions of a da capo aria. Whereas in the ABA form the middle section normally contrasts with the outer sections by reducing the dynamics, Bach does the opposite here. The quiet A sections, to be performed “molto adagio”, are for three voices (alto, viola da gamba, continuo), while the B section is concerted, calling for the full string complement in an explosive vivace. The French overture serves as a further model for this unusual movement. Its emblematic significance does not imply the usual meaning in this case (The King is coming!) but something remarkable (The King dies, but he is victorious!): “The hero from Judah triumphs with power.” In the death scene Jesus’s triumph over death is thus depicted strikingly and with exciting immediacy in the music – a preview of the resurrection of the ruler of heaven and earth.

Bach’s closing chorale, which follows the burial chorus “Rest in peace, blessed body”, also recalls the King of heaven. The chorale strophe “O Lord, send your dear angel in my last hour to carry my soul to Abraham’s bosom” has a double function. For one thing, the text involves the listener in the events of the Passion by addressing him directly with allusions to “my soul”, arousing his hope of a blessed end. For another, the cry “O Lord” refers back to the beginning of the opening chorus (“Lord, our ruler”), and, similarly, the closing line “I will praise you eternally” evokes the “glorification” of the ruler. Bach thus provides a look ahead to the last days and the eternal hymn of praise to the King of heaven, translated into music.

More Dramatic than the St Matthew Passion

In contrast to the St Matthew Passion with its 26 arias and ariosos, the St JohnPassion conspicuously plays down the contemplative verses and, as a result, the solo numbers are of secondary importance. The work contains no more than ten arias and ariosos, thus giving it a much stronger dramatic element. A dramatic spirit also pervades the recitatives, since particularly important textual passages are given prominence in an expanded, motivically developed and metrically bound structure. Especially typical in this respect are Peter’s lament (“and wept bitterly”) and the scourging of Jesus (“and scourged him”). Even the crowing cock in Peter’s denial scene is given a clear, although brief, motivic emphasis. The corresponding passages in the St Matthew Passion are much less striking.

In the St JohnPassion the unusually expansive and elaborate “turba” choruses, that is, the biblical dialogue of the high priests, the people, the soldiers and the disciples, take on formal significance. The original Johannine text already attached particular importance to these dialogues in purely quantitative terms, and Bach increases their impact by compositional means. Moreover, in his setting of the respective passages he creates a system of correspondences which give the choral interjections of the various groups a cyclical order through thematic and motivic repetition. The starting point for Bach’s formal approach is the text repetition in the evangelist’s account, for example, “Jesus of Nazareth” (twice), “Crucify him” (twice) or “Hail, King of the Jews”/“Do not write ‘the King of the Jews’”. Bach thus develops an internal network of relationships based on the biblical text which fits into the external framework formed by the opening chorus and the closing chorale. This framework emphasizes both the specific character of John’s Gospel and the liturgical function of the composition. In this respect, as in the focussed combination of dramatic biblical narrative, vividly poetic arias and expressive choral movements, Bach’s first Leipzig Passion setting proves to be a bridge between the musical narrative character of the older Passion historia and the still-young Passion oratorio.

Nevertheless, radical musical change outweighs continuing tradition. Although one can scarcely put oneself in the position of a listener at the premiere of the St John Passion, after a performance of the then still largely unknown work in 1842, Robert Schumann was deeply impressed and believed it should be regarded more highly than the St Matthew Passion in its maturity and boldness. He wrote to a friend: “Do you know Bach’s St John Passion, the so-called little one? Don’t you think it is much bolder, more powerful and poetic than the one according to Matthew? To me the latter seems to have been written some five or six years earlier. I think it contains some shallow parts and is inordinately long. But the other – how condensed, how full of genius, especially the choruses, and what consummate art!” Although Schumann was mistaken about the chronology and his comparison of the two Passions cannot be regarded as balanced, the spontaneous reaction of an attentive ear, enthralled after hearing the work for the first time, is fascinating and hits the nail on the head.

Christoph Wolff

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Christian Gerhaher studied not only singing but also philosophy and medicine. His lieder teachers include Helmut Deutsch, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. He has appeared both at home and abroad both as a lieder recitalist and as a concert soloist with such leading orchestras as the Vienna, Munich and Berlin Philharmonics, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the NHK Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. In addition to his busy schedule in the world’s recital rooms and concert halls, he has also taken part in a carefully selected number of opera productions that have included the title role in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The magazine Opernwelt voted him “Singer of the year” in 2010 for his performance of the title role in Henze’s Prinz von Homburg. Among the conductors with whom he has worked are Pierre Boulez, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons and Sir Simon Rattle. Christian Gerhaher first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in December 2003, when he took part in performances of Britten’s War Requiem under the direction of Donald Runnicles. Since then he has returned on frequent occasions; this season’s artitist in residence with the Berliner Philharmoniker, the baritone most recently appeared this February in a chamber concert with members of the orchestra and pianist Gerold Huber. Christian Gerhaher holds an honorary professorship in lieder interpretation at the Academy of Music and Theatre in Munich and has also given masterclasses at Yale University, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and elsewhere. His lieder recordings with Gerold Huber as his accompanist have won many prizes, including a Gramophone Award in 2006.

Magdalena Kožená, was born in Brno (Czech Republic) and studied there at the local conservatory and also with Eva Blahová in Bratislava. A winner of many competitions, including the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg in 1995, her first engagements were at the Janáček Theatre of the National Theatre in Brno and at the Prague Spring International Music Festival. Since then, she has appeared in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet (in the female title role in Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice), at the Opéra Comique and at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées (Mélisande), at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (Varvara in Kátja Kabanová) and at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin in productions of Der Rosenkavalier and the Chabrier opera L’Étoile. Well known for her interpretation of Mozart roles (Cherubino, Idamante, Sesto, Zerlina), Magdalena Kožená has appeared at many major festivals such as Edinburgh, Salzburg, Aldeburgh and at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. She is also acclaimed world-wide as a concert and lieder singer, accompanied by pianists such as Daniel Barenboim and Mitsuko Uchida as well as leading orchestras and conductors. In 2003, Magdalena Kožená was awarded the title “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” by the French government; Gramophone voted her “Artist of the Year” in 2004. Since September 2003 she has performed many times as a soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker and took part in Bach’s St Matthew Passion in April 2010 and October 2013. She appeared most recently in the series Original Sounds in January 2014 with Les Violons du Roy in the Chamber Music Hall.

The Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu was born in Australia. He studied the piano and the violin as well as choral conducting and singing at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and made his stage debut at the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki in the title role of Britten’s Albert Herring, a debut that was quickly followed by invitations to appear at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels and, back in Helsinki, a spectacular role debut as Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. He was additionally invited by René Jacobs to take part in a production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo that was also seen at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. He has appeared throughout Europe, the United States of America and Japan and worked with conductors of the eminence of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, William Christie, Riccardo Muti and Emmanuelle Haïm. Topi Lehtipuu’s repertory is by no means limited to the Baroque and Classical periods but also includes works by Schoenberg, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Arvo Pärt and Peter Eötvös. He first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in mid-June 2005, in performances of Stravinsky’s Renard under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. Most recently he took part in the ritualized performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in October 2013.

Mark Padmore was born in London and studied the clarinet before gaining a choral scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge. He is known above all for his performances as the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions, which he has sung under Philippe Herreweghe, Paul McCreesh and others. But his repertory extends beyond the concert hall and recital room to the world’s leading opera houses. Among the productions in which he has appeared are Les Troyens at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and Handel’s Jephtha at the English National Opera. In 2009 he performed the title role in Harrison Birthwhistles opera The Corridor at the festivals in Aldeburgh and Bregenz. Mark Padmore has sung with the Vienna and New York Philharmonics, the London Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. He also performs regularly with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. As a chamber recitalist he has worked with the pianists Julius Drake, Roger Vignoles, Imogen Cooper and Till Fellner. He appears frequently at Wigmore Hall in London and was their artist in residence in the 2009/10 season. In March 2009 he gave the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s A Constant Obsession, commissioned by the Wigmore Hall. He first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 2005 in performances of Haydn’s Harmoniemesse under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle, and most recently took part in the performances of Bach’s St.Matthew Passion in October 2013.

Camilla Tilling hails from Linköping in Sweden. She studied at the University of Gothenburg and at London’s Royal College of Music. She has already appeared in many leading opera houses in Europe and the United States of America as well as the Glyndebourne, Drottningholm and Aix-en-Provence Festivals. Among the conductors with whom she has worked are Semyon Bychkov, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Emmanuelle Haïm and Seiji Ozawa. Her operatic repertory extends from Handel and Mozart to Rossini, Verdi and Strauss and also includes roles by Debussy and Britten. Among the international concert halls and recital rooms where she has appeared are the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Promenade Concerts, the Wigmore Hall in London and Carnegie Hall in New York. Camilla Tilling made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in mid-December 2007 in performances of Handel’s Messiah under the direction of William Christie; she also took part in the performances of Bach’s St.Matthew Passion in April 2010 and October 2013.

Roderick Williams is much sought after throughout Europe as an opera, lieder and oratorio singer with a repertoire that ranges from Baroque to contemporary music, including works by composers such as Sally Beamish, Kaija Saariaho, Harrison Birtwistle and Mark-Anthony Turnage. Roderick Williams studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, and in 1994, he won second prize in the Kathleen Ferrier Competition. Since then, the English baritone has been much in demand as a guest artist in the great opera houses of Europe where he has performed in works by Mozart, Puccini, Strauss and Britten, among others. Also a successful composer, the artist has appeared as a concert singer with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Deutsches Symphonieorchester Berlin, the Academy of Ancient Music and Concert Spirituel, to name but a few. Roderick Williams made his first appearance at the invitation of the Berliner Philharmoniker with the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin in the chamber music hall in mid-October 2000.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin is a sought-after partner of leading orchestras and conductors all over the world, including long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. In around 50 concerts per year the chorus displays an exceptional breadth of repertoire and stylistic versatility. With it’s experimental series, “Broadening the Scope of Choral Music”, in collaboration with artists from diverse disciplines, the Rundfunkchor Berlin is breaking down the classical concert format and adopting new modes of choral music for a new audience: In 2012 an interactive scenic version of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem staged by Jochen Sandig / Sasha Waltz & Guests attracted great attention. Founded in 1925 and shaped by conductors including Helmut Koch, Dietrich Knothe and Robin Gritton, the Rundfunkchor Berlin has been directed since 2001 by Simon Halsey. Their work together is documented by many recordings and awards, including three Grammy Awards. Simon Halsey, who was awarded the “Bundesverdienstkreuz” (Cross of the Order of Merit) in January 2011, has also initiated many of the choir’s education and outreach projects, such as the annual Sing-along Concert and the “Liederbörse” (Song Exchange) for children and young people. The Rundfunkchor last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in December 2013 in Schumann’s Scenesfrom Goethe’s Faust, conducted by Daniel Harding.

Peter Sellars is known for his innovative and pioneering theatre productions. Central to his work on literary subjects is his desire to highlight their relevance to the political and social questions of today. On graduating from the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1975, he studied literature and music at Harvard University, making his debut as a stage director in New York in 1980. After a further period of study in Asia, he became director of the Boston Shakespeare Company in 1983 and the following year was appointed director of the American National Theatre Company in Washington, DC. He came to international attention as an opera director when his productions of Così fan tutte, Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni were broadcast on American television, leading to invitations to appear in major houses all over the world, including the Salzburg, Glyndebourne and Vienna Festivals, the San Francisco Opera and the Opéra National de Paris. Sellars has run many leading festivals, including the Los Angeles Festival in 1990 and 1993 and the New Crowned Hope Festival as part of the 2006 Vienna Mozart Year celebrations. He is also resident curator of the Telluride Film Festival. He was recently elected a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and is professor at UCLA in California. Sellars first worked with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the performances of Bach’s St.Matthew Passion in April 2010 and again in October 2013.

St John Passion

On CD & Blu-ray: Bach’s St John Passion
with Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars
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Christian Gerhaher appears by courtesy of Sony Classical.




Unitel ClassicaA coproduction of Berlin Phil Media and Unitel

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