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

19 Oct 2013

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Camilla Tilling, Magdalena Kožená, Mark Padmore, Topi Lehtipuu, Christian Gerhaher, Eric Owens, Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey, Peter Sellars

  • Johann Sebastian Bach
    St Matthew Passion, BWV 244: Part 1 (74 min.)

    Camilla Tilling Soprano, Magdalena Kožená Mezzo-Soprano, Mark Padmore Tenor (Evangelist), Topi Lehtipuu Tenor (Arias), Christian Gerhaher Baritone (Christ), Eric Owens Baritone (Arias), Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin, Rundfunkchor Berlin Chorus Master, Simon Halsey Chorus Master, Peter Sellars Staging

  • Johann Sebastian Bach
    St Matthew Passion, BWV 244: Part 2 (112 min.)

    Camilla Tilling Soprano, Magdalena Kožená Mezzo-Soprano, Mark Padmore Tenor (Evangelist), Topi Lehtipuu Tenor (Arias), Christian Gerhaher Baritone (Christ), Eric Owens Baritone (Arias), Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master, Peter Sellars Staging

  • free

    Bach’s "St. Matthew Passion": an introduction by Simon Halsey (16 min.)

  • free

    Peter Sellars in conversation with Mark Padmore (23 min.)

“Not all musicians believe in God, but they all believe in Johann Sebastian Bach,” said Mauricio Kagel, who grappled intensely with the life of the cantor at St. Thomas’s Church, plagued by bureaucratic city fathers and unmotivated Latin pupils, when he composed his own Passion. The term “Passion” is inextricably linked with the name “Bach”, first and foremost due to his St. Matthew Passion, already a work of superlatives in terms of its external dimensions.

That’s because the oratorio of the suffering and death of Christ, which in Bach’s lifetime eclipsed anything conceivable in the field of music, consists of no fewer than 68 individual movements (formerly counted as 78), which include, among others, the monumental opening chorus, the chorale setting “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünden groß” and the epic final chorus.

Already in the first version of the work from 1727 an extensive double choir setting of choir and orchestra is also required: the impressive stereophonic effects have lost none of their fascinating impact. (Bach himself demonstrably dared at a 1736 performance to separate the ensembles completely, enabling the real-spatial differentiation of the dialogue between the two vocal-instrumental ensembles.)

Starting off a week of festivities to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie, Sir Simon Rattle conducts Bach’s greatest passion music, together with the Rundfunkchor Berlin, boys from the Berlin Staats- und Domchor and a top-class ensemble of soloists. It is a work you can become addicted to, a work in which you can always discover something new even if you have listened to it repeatedly. This concert is also a feast for the eyes: as in April 2010, the St. Matthew Passion is performed in Peter Sellars’ unforgettable staging.

An Affectionate Meditation on the Leipzig Good Friday Vespers

Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion

As the congregation streamed into St. Thomas’s, Leipzig for Vespers on Good Friday of 1727, their expectations were high. It had only been six years since the city of trade fairs had adopted the practice – later than other Lutheran centres – of adorning Good Friday Vespers with a “musicked Passion”. Only on this day in the church year could one hear a full-length oratorio, not simply sacred histories in cantata form, integrated into the service, as Bach’sAscension Oratorio and the six parts of his Christmas Oratorio would be includedsomewhat later. The Thomaskantor had the opportunity ex officio on this day alone to direct a long oratorio, one “constructed of both poetry and prose”, as the Leipzig music theorist Johann Adolph Scheibe described it in 1737 in his Critische Musikus: “This construction may seem more epic than dramatic. However, because the part of the Evangelist, who in these pieces has the task of providing continuity, is marked throughout with expressive emphasis ... I regard even this construction as being more dramatic than epic.”

With his initial attempt at a Passion setting, based on the Gospel of St. John, the new Thomaskantor and music director had fulfilled to sweeping effect the expectations held for this new genre. The congregation of St. Thomas’s had to wait a year, until 1725, to hear the work, because 1724 was the turn of St. Nicholas’s, which had priority for presenting the Passion music in even-numbered years. Bach complied grudgingly with this rule, which meant having to jam his performing forces together in the Nikolaikirche’s narrow organ loft. The spacious west loft of the Thomaskirche offered quite different possibilities, and he was firmly determined to exploit them.

New dimensions

Although the modifications of the St. John Passion for performance at St. Thomas’s in 1725 already show an increase in scale, they barely hint at what Bach would impose on Leipzig churchgoers two years later in the form of his St. Matthew Passion. On admission to the church or “by purchase in advance”, one could acquire the libretto, and from even a cursory perusal of it one could not fail to notice that the Gospel narration was missing. So many contemplative sections had been inserted into the telling of the story that there was no longer enough space to print the whole text. There are only brief indications of the relevant scenes in the Passion story. The Leipzigers would also immediately notice that this Passion did not begin as usual with the arrest of Jesus, but much earlier: with Christ’s announcement of his suffering and his anointing in Bethany. For devout Lutherans this meant two things above all: the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper and the Agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane were now part and parcel of the Passion setting. Bach also set the complete story of Judas, from the betrayal to the bitter consequence of his suicide.

This arrangement resulted in a shifting of weight in the established course of Good Friday Vespers: before the sermon one no longer heard roughly a half hour of music but nearly one and a half; afterwards, nearly two. The first part is dedicated to the events of Maundy Thursday, the second to those of Good Friday. The temporal dimensions of the new work alone far exceeded anything encountered heretofore.

The Daughter of Zion and the Believers

A second circumstance is likely to have struck the Leipzigers: the most important meditations on the Passion in the libretto came in the dialogue between the “Daughter of Zion” and the “Believers”. The opening chorus in the original libretto reads: “The Daughter of Zion and the Believers. – Aria – Z.: Come, ye Daughters, help me grieve, / Behold! Bel.: Whom? Z.: The Bridegroom. / Behold him; Bel.: How? Z.: Just like a lamb.” The pious Lutherans of Bach’s time immediately grasped the theological context: the Daughter of Zion was the allegorical embodiment of Christ’s bride, derived from the “Song of Songs” and other relevant Old Testament texts. In the Passion he becomes the lamb that silently lets itself be led to the slaughter and sacrificed for our sins as the Israelites sacrificed lambs before the exodus from Egypt to protect themselves from God’s wrath. Whereas the Bridegroom patiently bears his suffering, carrying the Cross himself to Golgotha “out of love and grace”, we are obliged to recognise our guilt and show contrition. To reinforce these theological connections, the individual lines of the chorale “O Lamm Gottes unschuldig” (Lamb of God) are interpolated into the text.

Use of double chorus

The most important moments in the St.Matthew Passion are emphasised by large-scale dialogue involving double chorus: Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane is depicted by the tenor recitative “O Schmerz” with the choral strophe “Was ist die Ursach aller solcher Plagen” and by the tenor aria “Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen” with the chorus of Believers “So schlafen unsre Sünden ein”; his arrest is illustrated by the work’s only duet, with choral interjections, and the ensuing furious double chorus “Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden?”; the beginning of Part II is set off by the alto aria “Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin” with insertions from the Song of Songs “Wo ist denn dein Freund hingegangen?”; and, finally, the Crucifixion is denoted by the harrowing recitative “Ach Golgatha, unselges Golgatha” and the alto aria “Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand”. This penultimate aria of the Passion is a response to the opening chorus: it heralds the message of redemption even before Christ’s suffering is over. Thus the question-answer pattern recurs at this point: “Z.: Come! Bel.: Where? Z.: In Jesus’ arms / seek redemption, find mercy. / Seek! Bel.: Where? Z.: In Jesus’ arms.”

The suffering Son of Man

No other 18th-century Passion setting brings the human being Jesus of Nazareth so palpably near us as this work, especially in Gethsemane. We experience him approaching his death on the Cross, step by step, and his disciples accompanying this event with an increasing sense of helplessness. The words of the Saviour, suffused with a nimbus of string tone out of which the Passion’s dark colours emerge, are the heart of the work. His announcement of his impending suffering, the institution of the Eucharist, submission to the Father’s will and the intentionally precipitated arrest allow us to recognise the man and the son of God as he follows his inevitable, courageously accepted path: “Sehet ihn aus Lieb und Huld Holz zum Kreuze selber tragen” / “Behold him, out of love and grace, bear the wood that forms his cross,” as described in the opening chorus. His partners in dialogue are the disciples: opposing, questioning, for a long time witnessing the sacred events without comprehending, as is evident at once in the scene at Bethany. In Part II, on the other hand, the Saviour is silent – like the lamb being led to slaughter – and only speaks again, without string halo, in the devastating outburst “Eli, Eli lama asabthani”. In the intervening scenes, we see individuals being confronted with his suffering and reacting with the human frailties we all share.

Karl Böhmer

Translation: Richard Evidon

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 in September 2013 performing Mahler lieder and as soloist in Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. 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, most recently in April 2013 in Mozart’s Zauberflöte.

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 April 2010.

Eric Owens studied at Temple University and at the Curtis Institute of Music in his home town of Philadelphia. After awards at various competitions (Operalia Contest, Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Pavarotti International Voice Competition and others) an international career has taken him to the opera stages and concert halls of many American and European music capitals, such as Boston, Chicago, New York, London, Paris, Vienna and Berlin. Eric Owens has performed as a soloist with the major orchestras in Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco and Cleveland; Riccardo Muti, Donald Runnicles and Franz Welser-Möst, are among the conductors he works with. He has enjoyed success in roles such as Alberich (Der Ring des Nibelungen), Ramfis and Amonasro (Aida), Jochanaan (Salome), Porgy (Porgy and Bess), Doctor (Wozzeck), Basilio (Il barbiere di Siviglia), Sarastro (Die Zauberflöte), Mephistopheles (Faust) and Sharpless (Madama Butterfly). The baritone is particularly associated with the work of John Adams: He sang, for example, the role of General Leslie Groves (Doctor Atomic) in San Francisco, and at the BBC Proms in London, he appeared in The Wound Dresser. In 2006, Eric Owens made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in Adams’ A Flowering Tree (conductor: Sir Simon Rattle).

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 also took part in the performances of Bach’s St.Matthew Passion in April 2010. Most recently he gave a recital of works by Beethoven, Britten and Schubert in December 2012 on the invitation of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation.

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; he will also stage the St. John Passion in February/March 2014.

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. Her most recent encounter with the orchestra was in June 2013, when she sang in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Waldbühne concert.

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 June this year at the Waldbühne in Beehthoven’s Ninth Symphony, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

The Staats- und Domchor Berlin is one of the most famous boys’ choirs in Germany, with a history that goes back to the 15th century. Its first golden age was in the 19th century under the direction of conductors such as Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Otto Nicolai and Heinrich August Neidhardt. In 1923 the ensemble was renamed the “Staats- und Domchor Berlin” and became affiliated with the University of Music. Today, the choir provides music for services at the Cathedral of Berlin and also for state occasions. In addition, it participates in performances in opera houses and concert venues in Berlin, and holds its own concerts with a repertoire which includes the great works of the Western choral tradition from the Middle Ages to modern times. Since 2002, the choir has been led by Kai-Uwe Jirka, professor of choral conducting at the Berlin University of the Arts. In addition to many other awards, the Staats- und Domchor Berlin won the European Youth Choir Culture Prize in 2002. Tours have taken the choir to other European countries, Asia, the USA and Israel. The Staats- und Domchor most recently participated in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 2013 in performances of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

St Matthew Passion

On CD & Blu-ray: Bach’s St Matthew Passion
with Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars
Order now






Magdalena Kožená appears by courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft.


Christian Gerhaher appears by courtesy of Sony Classical.

Watch now

Try out the Digital Concert Hall!

Try out the Digital Concert Hall!

In our free playlist, Kirill Petrenko conducts works including Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Peter Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. The best seat in the house is reserved just for you!

View our free playlist