sun 14/07/2024

Prom 66: St Matthew Passion, Berlin Philharmonic, Rattle | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 66: St Matthew Passion, Berlin Philharmonic, Rattle

Prom 66: St Matthew Passion, Berlin Philharmonic, Rattle

A deeply moving and daringly simple staging of Bach's great Passion

At the core of Peter Sellars' theatrical "prayer" was Mark Padmore's astonishing EvangelistChris Christodoulou/BBC Proms

Peter Sellars’ work used to be about making a statement. He would dislocate texts from contexts, subvert musical suggestion and ignore written statement for the sheer joy of the artistic friction it would generate. The beauty of his St Matthew Passion staging however, first seen in 2010, is that it does nothing of the sort.

By the end of three hours of delicate, interpersonal drama and choric tableaux, Sellars has made no statement at all, and that refusal, that restraint, allows Bach’s music to speak louder than any amount of “konzept”. Of course Sellars is not alone in this. Jonathan Miller’s St Matthew staging is equally, if not more, simple, but there’s a ritual stature to Sellars’ that Miller pulls back from, scared somehow to commit himself to any large-scale gestures.

Rattle’s reading emerged from the emotions of the music, apparently unmediated by any stylistic affinity or agenda

The Royal Albert Hall is a space that can swallow even the largest gestures whole, and Sellars himself reconceived the production for this Proms performance. He also reassembled almost all his original cast, with the exception of the now-retired Thomas Quasthoff, replaced here by bass Eric Owens. Singing without scores, as did both the Berlin Radio Choir and the young choristers of Wells and Winchester Cathedrals, the soloists were free not only to narrate the musical drama, but to enact it in a series of physical movements and encounters.

While not all were clear, not all equally effective in this odd environment, the visual choreography silhouetted the emotions of Bach’s score against the orchestral backdrop, helped by Sir Simon Rattle’s instinctive and organic direction. Rattle’s reading emerged from the emotions of the music, apparently unmediated by any particular stylistic affinity or agenda. Allowed to shape itself, the music flowed in some unexpected directions, offering us a startlingly subdued demand for crucifixion from the chorus, and an unusual musical assault from the obbligato violin on a cowering Owens for “Gebt mir meinen Jesum".

If the quality of the orchestral playing and chorus singing wasn’t quite matched among the soloists, then it had surprisingly little impact on the intensity of the performance. Some alchemy between Sellars’ movement, Rattle’s music, Mark Padmore’s astonishing, raw Evangelist and the space of the Royal Albert Hall held us all in a state of emotional reciprocity, transforming a rag-bag of parts into a transcendent whole.

Listening, watching, narrating, Padmore’s Evangelist was at the heart of it all. Projecting with absolute clarity, the expressive shades he found in this music, in this hall, were startling. Camilla Tilling came close to his intensity, finding a rough immediacy to her soprano solos that brought life to their loveliness. Tilling’s physical stillness was set against Magdalena Kožená’s pacing, restless Mary Magdalene. A little too busy both in action and voice for this delicate treatment, Kožená (pictured left) seemed to be playing Carmen while everyone else was singing Bach – a shock absorbed by Bach’s music, though not one that brought any memorable insight to “Erbarme dich” or “Können Tränen meiner Wangen”.

Christian Gerhaher, underused as Christus, never quite found his vocal stride (though an off day for the German baritone still proved finer than other people’s best), while bass soloist Eric Owens held tantalisingly back, offering delicious hints but never fully showing his vocal hand.

On paper this wasn’t an exceptional performance. In the hall (and on Radio 3) though, it was transmuted. Call it an aesthetic ritual or a spiritual one, a collective act of artistic engagement or an act or worship – something came together in the moment here to make this Passion so much more than the sum of its parts. Whether the alchemist was Rattle, Sellars or Bach himself is hard to say, and that in itself might just be the secret.


What nonsense! This staging is appalling in all respects. Full of unnecessary distraction, histrionics and falseness, it detracts from a deeply serious liturgical piece. Sellars lacks taste, discretion and sensibility. How Rattle and the splendid Berlin P bought into this rot is baffling.

I have to agree with the comment by Mr Jackson. Bach's Matthew Passion is powerful enough to speak for itself, it is a masterpiece as it is, and there is no need to add stage action of dubious quality which I found distracting.

There will always be performances of the St Matthew Passion. Mostly these will be performed by people in bow ties hiding behind the music and not showing any visible emotion nor connection with each other or the audience. I might go to some, because the music does, in the best hands, stand by itself. But I know that I am different today as a result of seeing and feeling much more strongly than ever that this piece and this story are meant for me. I didn't like every move, but the way that the action became physical and played out through the Evangelist was shocking - as it should be. The way the cast turned to look out at me at the end was very telling, and something you don't get in traditional performances. As you say, this was originally music meant to be performed in church during worship. We have already altered it significantly by performing it in secular concert halls, in bow ties, at any time of year. We also live in a visual age, and there seems nothing wrong in going a step further and asking whether there could be a visual counterpart to the graphic images in the text.

Yes a completely amazing musical and spiritual event.It really worked and had intensity.An inspirational fusion of musical control and raw emotion Bravo

The music was beautiful as always but the bland stage, all black costumes and amateur dramatics were absolutely appalling and very distracting.

I agree with Anonymous (Sun, 07/09/2014 - 22:31). I think it was excellent and very moving. Of course, Bach's St. Matthew Passion does not need the staging. For me that is not really the question. I think Bach wanted to move his congregation and make the passion a personal story for each of the listeners. I think the text the arias in particular makes it quite clear that the congregation should ask themselves, in which way they are or might be responsible for what happened to Christ. Bach certainly did not want to have piece of music for a pretty concert which people attend, because it is the event of the year. If I apply this test to Saturday night's performance, this worked admirably for me and I think this performance will alter the way I listen to it. For me the performance forced you to actually think about the text and about everything what is happening in the story. In a way, the audience was invited to remember and think about the story in same way as the performers did. I was standing in the arena not very far from the stage and I did not find anything distracting. In my opinion the action was enhancing and emphasizing the text. I also thought that the whole cast was excellent and I do not think I find words strong enough to praise Mark Padmore for his singing, his acting and his whole performance.

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