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

11 Apr 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Johann Sebastian Bach
    St Matthew Passion, BWV 244: Part 1 (78 min.)

    Mark Padmore Tenor (Evangelist), Christian Gerhaher Bass (Jesus), Camilla Tilling Soprano, Magdalena Kožená Mezzo-Soprano (Musician), Topi Lehtipuu Tenor (Arias), Thomas Quasthoff Baritone (Arias), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master, Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin, Kai-Uwe Jirka Chorus Master, Peter Sellars Staging

  • Johann Sebastian Bach
    St Matthew Passion, BWV 244: Part 2 (116 min.)

  • free

    Peter Sellars in conversation with Simon Halsey (50 min.)

The critics’ reviews of St Matthew Passion in the Philharmonie were full of superlatives. The radio station RBB Kultur considered it to be “a moment of glory for Rattle! And one of the best evenings with the Philharmoniker for years.« Media praise didn’t stop at the Berliner Philharmoniker and their principal conductor but extended to what is called the “ritualization” by American star director Peter Sellars. According to the Berliner Zeitung, this semi-staged presentation provided “the most moving concert and music theatre event of the season”. 

For Berlin’s Tagesspiegel, “the stars of these three and a half hours ... were the dazzlingly bright and powerful voices of the boys from the Berlin Staats- und Domchor (chorus master Kai-Uwe Jirka) and the Rundfunkchor, magnificently rehearsed by Simon Halsey. The notorious chaos sections such as ‘Ja nicht auf das Fest’ and the cries for Christ to be crucified, succeeded in a way that was both transparent and natural, developing from the uproar in an almost improvised manner that can only be marvelled at.”

Of course, the soloists also played their part in the success of the evening. The Berliner Morgenpost wrote: “Christian Gerharer sings the role of Christ superbly and unfalteringly from among the audience, from a balcony to the left of the concert stage. ... Meanwhile Mark Padmore controls the stage, singing the Evangelist with his almost inexhaustible tenor voice, giving full expression to every nuance. ... Padmore is approached in turn by ... the wonderfully sonorous Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling ... and the grandiose Magdalena Kožená with her voluptuosly expansive alto voice ...: one miraculous singing voice joins another. Thomas Quasthoff gives a most vivid performance of the bass arias ... singing them with incomparable nobility. The excellent Finnish singer Topi Lehtipuu embraced the tenor arias with slenderness and intensity.”

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’s Ascension Oratorio and the six parts of his Christmas Oratorio would be included somewhat 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 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. Among the conductors with whom he has worked are Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Riccardo Muti, Mariss Jansons and Sir Simon Rattle. Christian Gerhaher first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in December 2003, when he took the part of the baritone soloist in performances of Britten’s War Requiem under the direction of Donald Runnicles. Since then he has returned on frequent occasions, most recently in February 2009 for performances of Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri. 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 and studied at the city’s Conservatory and also in Bratislava. The winner of several singing competitions, including the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg in 1995, she made her professional debut at the Janáček Opera in Brno and at the Prague Spring Festival. Among the opera houses where she has appeared since then are the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris for Eurydice in the Berlioz/Gluck Orphée et Eurydice, the Opéra-Comique and the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées for Debussy’s Mélisande, the Metropolitan Opera, New York, for Varvara in Kátya Kabanová and the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin for Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. Best known for her interpretations of four of Mozart’s roles, Cherubino, Idamante, Sesto and Zerlina, Magdalena Kožená has appeared at many notable festivals, including those in Edinburgh, Salzburg and Glyndebourne, as well as the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. She has enjoyed international acclaim as a concert singer and song recitalist – among the pianists with whom she has worked are Daniel Barenboim, Yefim Bronfman and Mitsuko Uchida. In 2003 she was appointed a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government, and the following year was voted “Artist of the Year” by Gramophone magazine. She first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in September 2003 and has returned to Berlin on many occasions since then, most recently in late September 2008, when she took part in performances of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle.

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, when he took part in performances of Stravinsky’s Renard under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. His most recent appearances, again under Sir Simon Rattle, took place in early February 2009, when he took part in performances of Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri.

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. He 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 and the Nash Ensemble, with whom he gave the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s A Constant Obsession in March 2009. As a chamber recitalist he has worked with the pianists Julius Drake, Roger Vignoles, Imogen Cooper and Till Fellner. In May 2008 London’s Wigmore Hall invited him to give three Schubert recitals. He first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 2005 in performances of Haydn’s Harmoniemesse under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. His most recent appearances were in mid-December 2007, when he took part in performances of Handel’s Messiah under the direction of William Christie.

Thomas Quasthoff is one of the foremost lieder recitalists and concert singers of our age. He studied music with Charlotte Lehmann and Ernst Huber-Contwig while at the same time reading law. His early appearances in the United States of America and Japan laid the foundations for a successful international career. In 1996 the Detmold Academy of Music appointed him to a chair in singing. During the winter of 2004/05 he moved to a similar position at the Hanns Eisler Academy of Music in Berlin. He has appeared with leading orchestras all over the world and worked with many eminent conductors. Thomas Quasthoff first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1997. His stage debut came in April 2003, when he appeared with the orchestra at the Salzburg Easter Festival as Don Fernando in a production of Fidelio conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Back in Berlin, he appeared with the orchestra in early September 2009 as the bass soloist in performances of Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten, again under Sir Simon Rattle’s direction. He is the recipient of many awards. In October 2005 the Federal President Horst Köhler awarded him the Federal Republic’s Order of Merit, and in 2006 he received the European Culture Prize in Dresden’s Frauenkirche. Other awards include the title of Austrian Kammersänger and the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society of London, which he received in 2009.

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 Marc Minkowski, Antonio Pappano, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Emmanuelle Haïm and Semyon Bychkov. 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, when she took part in performances of Handel’s Messiah under the direction of William Christie. Her most recent encounter with the orchestra was in early March 2008, when she sang works by Webern and Handel under the direction of Susanna Mälkki and Emmanuelle Haïm.

The Berlin Radio Chorus was formed in 1925 and quickly built up an enviable reputation for itself under conductors of the eminence of George Szell, Hermann Scherchen, Otto Klemperer and Erich Kleiber. Following the end of the Second World War it earned a name for itself on the international circuit by performing Handel’s oratorios in their original form under its principal conductor Helmut Koch. Dietrich Knothe, who was in charge from 1982 to 1993, turned the Berlin Radio Chorus into a precision instrument for some of the most difficult works in the repertory, while his successor, Robin Gritton (1994 – 2001), enriched and refined its range of colours. Since 2001 its music director has been Simon Halsey, who sets particular store by stylistically and linguistically perfect performances of works of all periods and styles, while ensuring that those performances are exciting and filled with life. Their work together is documented by a busy recording schedule, and their recent CD of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle won the 2009 Grammy Award for the best choral recording. Simon Halsey has also initiated many education projects with the Berlin Radio Chorus. Once a year the Chorus holds a concert at which the audience is invited to sing along. The Berlin Radio Chorus works with leading orchestras and conductors all over the world and has long had particularly close links with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, the German Symphony Orchestra and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The Berlin Radio Chorus last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in December 2009, when they performed works by Johannes Brahms under the direction of Christian Thielemann.

The State and Cathedral Choir of Berlin is one of Germany’s most famous boys’ choirs, with a history dating back to the 16th century. An early high point in its fortunes came in the 19th century, when its music directors were Mendelssohn, Nicolai and Heinrich August Neidhardt. In 1923 the then Royal Cathedral Choir was renamed the State and Cathedral Choir of Berlin and placed under the aegis of the city’s Academy of Music. Today it takes part in services in the cathedral, appears at political events and in stage productions and concerts in the city and organises its own concerts with a repertory that embraces the major choral works of the Western European tradition from the Middle Ages to the present day. Since 2002 the choir’s director of music has been Kai-Uwe Jirka, who also teaches choral conducting at Berlin’s University of the Arts. The State and Cathedral Choir of Berlin has received numerous awards, including the 2002 European Culture Prize for Youth Choirs. Concert tours have taken the choir to Asia, the United States of America and Israel.

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. Particularly acclaimed were his interpretations of Stravinsky’s Oedipus rex and Symphony of Psalms and Shakespeare’s Othello. He has also run many leading festivals, including the Los Angeles Festival in 1990 and 1993 and the Venice Biennale in 2003. In 2006 he was invited by Peter Marboe, the intendant of the Vienna Mozart Year celebrations, to run the New Crowned Hope Festival. Peter Sellars is resident curator of the Telluride Film Festival. He was recently elected a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

St Matthew Passion

On CD & Blu-ray: Bach’s St Matthew Passion
with Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars
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EMISir Simon Rattle appears by kind permission of EMI Classics.


Magdalena Kožená appears by kind permission of Deutsche Grammophon.


Christian Gerhaher appears by kind permission of Sony Classical.

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