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

16 Mar 2019

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Rundfunkchor Berlin, Peter Sellars

  • Johann Sebastian Bach
    St John Passion, BWV 245: Part 1 (40 min.)

    Magdalena Kožená mezzo-soprano, Camilla Tilling soprano, Georg Nigl baritone (Petrus), Mark Padmore tenor (Evangelist), Roderick Williams baritone (Jesus), Andrew Staples tenor, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey chorus master, Peter Sellars staging

  • Johann Sebastian Bach
    St John Passion, BWV 245: Part 2 (100 min.)

  • free

    Interview
    Peter Sellars talks about Bach’s “St John Passion” (18 min.)

“When you hear this music for the first time, you are simply not prepared for this surging sea of sound and these dissonances,” says Sir Simon Rattle looking back on his rather late first encounter with Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion. At that time, the conductor was 30 years old and completely overwhelmed by the enthralling, almost modern-sounding music as well as the dramatic power and complexity of the work.

Bach’s passions must also have had an unsettling effect on his contemporaries. Many, for example, were outraged by the theatrical style of the works. “God forbid, children! It is as if one were in the opera house,” as one aristocratic widow is reported to have said. Johann Sebastian Bach had just completed his first year as Thomaskantor when he presented the first version of his St. John Passion to the people of Leipzig and took his audience on a disturbing journey into the depths of human existence. It begins with the arrest of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane and the denial by Peter, who had been his most faithful disciple. It takes us from the interrogation by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate who can find no blame in Jesus, but who nevertheless bows to the demands of the people and allows the man who steadfastly calls himself the Son of God to be crucified, to the place of his death, Golgotha.

“It’s a dirty, disgusting parody of justice,” says director Peter Sellars who, after his sensational production of the St. Matthew Passion with Simon Rattle, also presented a staged version of the St. John Passion. “There’s a lot of secrecy in this piece, and at the same time that unadorned brutality, as if it were a story from today.” This brutality is particularly evident in the choral scenes in which the aggressive crowd demands the death of Jesus – and at the same time Bach makes this choir, with its contemplative chorales, the haven of peace of the Passion. The narrative of the Evangelist in the form of recitative describes the Passion story of the Gospel of John in an almost reportage style, while the arias reflect moments of personal reflection and subjective perception. Sir Simon Rattle has performed Bach’s masterpiece with the Berliner Philharmoniker on several occasions, most recently in 2014 in Peter Sellars’ production which was performed in Berlin and at the Easter Festival in Baden-Baden. This impressive production is revived this season with the almost same ensemble of singers and the Rundfunkchor Berlin.

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

Sir Simon Rattle was chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonie from September 2002 until June 2018. Even before taking up his post as principal conductor, Simon Rattle had already collaborated regularly with the Berliner Philharmoniker for fifteen years: he conducted the orchestra for the first time in November 1987 in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. His last concert as chief conductor with the Berliner Philharmoniker was in June 2018 at the season closing concert at Berlin’s Waldbühne. In September 2017, Simon Rattle took up the position of Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra. Rattle is also principal artist of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and works with leading orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic. Born in Liverpool in 1955, Simon Rattle studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music. In 1980 he became principal conductor and artistic adviser of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, stepping up to music director from September 1990 until August 1998. In the concert hall and opera house, Simon Rattle’s extensive repertoire covers compositions ranging from the Baroque era to contemporary music. He has conducted operas by Rameau, Mozart, Puccini, Wagner, Debussy and Poulenc in Aix-en-Provence, London, Salzburg, New York, Baden-Baden and Berlin. Music education is an important part of Sir Simon’s work; the Education Programme of the Berliner Philharmoniker was established on his initiative. For this commitment, as well as for his artistic work, Simon Rattle has won many awards: In 1994 Simon Rattle was knighted by the Queen of England. He also received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, a knighthood in the French Legion of Honour and the British Order of Merit.

Peter Sellars is one of the most unconventional and innovative theatre and opera directors of our times. Born in Pittsburgh in 1957, 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. Sellars has staged operas in major houses all over the world, including the Dutch National Opera, the Opéra National de Paris, the San Francisco Opera and the Salzburg and Glyndebourne Festivals. He has championed the creation of many new works, with long-time collaborator John Adams, such as Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic, and works by Tan Dun, Osvaldo Golijov and Kaija Saariaho. Peter Sellars has received numerous honours (MacArthur Fellowship, the Erasmus Prize, Gish Prize and the Polar Music Prize among others) and is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. He is professor at the University of California in Los Angeles. The collaboration between Sellars and the Berliner Philharmoniker began in April 2010 with the St Matthew Passion, followed by the St John Passion in 2014; in the 2015/16 season he was their artist in residence. His most recent project was a concert staging of Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen in October 2017, the conductor was Sir Simon Rattle.

Georg Nigl appeared in his childhood as a soprano soloist with the Vienna Boys’ Choir at major venues before training under the Kammersängerin Hilde Zadek as a baritone. Today, engagements take him to renowned opera houses such as the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre, the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, Bayerische Staastsoper in Munich, the state opera houses in Stuttgart and Hamburg, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam plus major festivals (Salzburg Festival, Festival Aix-en-Provence, Ruhrtriennale, Wiener Festwochen). Georg Nigl has worked together with conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, Teodor Currentzis, Valery Gergiev, Daniel Harding, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, René Jacobs and Kent Nagano and with directors including Andrea Breth, Frank Castorf, Hans Neuenfels, Johan Simons, Dmitri Tcherniakov and Sasha Waltz. The singer has gained special recognition for his performances in many premieres and has been initiating the creation of compositions by Friedrich Cerha, Pascal Dusapin, Georg Friedrich Haas, Wolfgang Mitterer, Olga Neuwirth and Wolfgang Rihm. Georg Nigl’s chamber music repertoire, which he prepares and performs together with Alexander Melnikov, Gérard Wyss and Luca Pianca, covers a wide spectrum ranging from the Baroque era to the First Viennese School to contemporary music. Since 2014, he has been a professor of voice at the State University of Music and Performing Arts Stuttgart. Voted the critics’ “Singer of the Year” in the magazine Opernwelt in 2015, Georg Nigl made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in March 2017 in John Adams’ The Wound-Dresser, conducted by Kirill Petrenko.

Mark Padmore first trained as a clarinetist before starting his vocal studies at King’s College in Cambridge in 1979. His close association with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants began in 1991, and with Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale Gent in 1992. Mark Padmore soon gained global fame particularly for his roles as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist in Bach’s choral works. But from the 1990s, he also increasingly made a name for himself on the opera stage: he sang in Peter Brook’s production of Don Giovanni in Aix-en-Provence, made a guest appearance in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, and was involved in performances of Handel’s Jephtha at English National Opera. He also took on the main roles in Harrison Birtwistle’s The Corridor and The Cure at the Aldeburgh Festival and at the Linbury Theatre, Covent Garden. Mark Padmore has performed with the Vienna and New York Philharmonic, the London and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam; he also regularly performs with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Britten Sinfonia. As a lieder singer, he works together with pianists such as Julius Drake, Till Fellner, Paul Lewis and Roger Vignoles. In the 2017/2018 season, Mark Padmore was artist in residence of the Berlin Philharmonic Foundation. In concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker, he most recently appeared in Schumann’s Paradise and the Peri in May 2018. Mark Padmore is artistic director of the St Endellion Summer Music Festival in Cornwall.

Andrew Staples sang as a boy in the choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London before studying music at King’s College in Cambridge. With a grant from the Britten Pears Foundation, he continued his studies at the Royal College of Music in London and at the Britten International Opera School. With a repertoire which includes works by Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Britten and Tavener, Andrew Staples is a guest artist at leading opera houses and concert halls, and at renowned festivals. At the Royal Opera House in London he has appeared as Flamand (Capriccio), Tamino (Die Zauberflöte), Narraboth (Salome) and Artabenes (Arne’s Artaxerxes) among other roles there. He has also sung at the National Theatre in Prague, the Hamburg State Opera, Lyric Opera Chicago and at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, and Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni) at the Salzburg Festival. On the concert stage, Andrew Staples has sung with orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, working with conductors such as Semyon Bychkov, Daniel Harding and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. In Berliner Philharmoniker concerts, where the singer made his debut in early February 2009, Andrew Staples was last heard in May 2018 in performances of Schumann’s Paradise and the Peri, conducted by Mikko Franck.

Camilla Tilling hails from Linköping in Sweden. She studied at the University of Gothenburg and at London’s Royal College of Music. She has appeared in many leading opera houses in Europe and the United States of America as well as the Glyndebourne, Salzburg, Drottningholm and Aix-en-Provence Festivals. 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. Among the conductors with whom she has worked are Semyon Bychkov, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Andris Nelsons, Sir Simon Rattle and William Christie. Camilla Tilling made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in December 2007 in performances of Handel’s Messiah under the direction of William Christie. In recent years, she participated in the staged performances of Bach’s St Matthew and St John Passion, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Her last appearance with the orchestra was in February 2017 in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, also directed by Simon Rattle.

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, Harrison Birtwistle, Kaija Saariaho 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 Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, the Academy of Ancient Music and Concert Spirituel, to name but a few. Roderick Williams, who was awarded an OBE in June 2017, made his first appearance at the invitation of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation with the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin in the chamber music hall in October 2000, and last performed with the orchestra in March 2014 in the staged performances of Bach’s St John Passion.

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