Rattle Conducts Bach's St. John Passion

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Berlin Philharmonic at the Philharmonie The Berlin Philharmonic at the Philharmonie (Monika Rittershaus)

In Bach’s day, the passions – cantatas telling the story of Christ’s crucifixion – were intended to be performed in Lutheran churches in Leipzig on Good Friday. Even today, on the Friday before Easter, choirs in churches around the world sing Bach’s Passions. But these works are rarely staged.

Enter director Peter Sellars. Four years ago in the Philharmonie concert hall in Berlin, the acclaimed director offered a radically new, 21st century production of the St. Matthew Passion. We presented it on the Berlin Philharmonic in Concert earlier this month.

Then, Simon Rattle said to Sellars, “Now we have to do Bach’s St. John Passion,” and Sellars responded, “No we don’t.” He thought the piece to be a “crude sketch.” But Simon said, laughing, “You will be so embarrassed you said that one day."

Rattle and Sellars are an unlikely team: one with white British curls and the other wearing a spiky American “do.” And the two made the production happen.

They keep almost the same group of vocal soloists – Mark Padmore as the Evangelist, Roderick Williams singing Jesus’s part, and Christian Gerhaher as both St. Peter and Pontius Pilate – but the two Passions are “utterly different,” Rattle says. The St. John is “full of horror, and terror, and it’s one of the most partisan, most violent pieces ever written.” It moves quickly from event to event, with the chorales the only places of order and safety.

Sellars spins it differently. He wants “the chorales to be action, not just nice thoughts.” He wants the chorales to challenge the congregation and now the audience, asking “How do we respond now that we’ve seen people in need? What do we do next? And the music never resolves that…”

Thanks to Emmanuel Church in Boston for the libretto in the original German and English.

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

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The Berlin Philharmonic's recordings are available at Arkivmusic.com and on iTunes.

Comments [4]

gg from syosset

I find most amazing that Bach did not have the means / musicians to perform these passions as perfectly as we can hear them today. It seems to me that he composed these works so that they are beautiful and meaningful as long as they are performed with lots of heart.

Nov. 18 2014 11:29 PM

This -- "BACH appeals to all ages, rock and roll, country western, folksingers, jazz singers ..." -- sounds vaguely familiar. I'm pretty sure I've seen it before.


Nov. 17 2014 11:56 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

BACH appeals to all ages, rock and roll, country western, folksingers, jazz singers and instrumentalists, all gravitate to improvising on his rep. Anyone who makes it big is fair game for con artists and misguided souls who consider ridicule as risible and a challenge to de-horse the gallant rider, especially one who rides high in the public's estimation. BACH is as great as one may reasonably expect given the scenario of minor talents now. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, an opera composer; "Shakespeare' and "The Political Shakespeare," and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute. My 6 websites carry my 37 out of the over 100 selections of my singing four three-hour-long solo concerts in the main hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium, of Carnegie Hall. They may be downloaded FREE at Recorded Selections. www.WagnerOpera.com

Nov. 17 2014 08:03 PM
Gev Sweeney from The Jersey Shore

Have to say I'm not familiar with the Sellars St. Matthew Passion, so at this point I don't know what I missed. (Yes, I will Google it for a vid.) But I'm still waiting for a director to realize that the title song of Jesus Christ Superstar is a reworking of the St. John Passion's last chorus, Ruht wohl ihr heiligen Gebeine. Think about it. Hear it? Might be interesting to see the oratorio given the Broadway treatment.

Nov. 17 2014 08:49 AM

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