Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic scale the Mount Everest of Western classical music, J. S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion. The rehearsals and performances of this Peter Sellars production – originally designed for the Philharmonie in Berlin – recently sold out twice in New York.
“The two choruses face each other, the two orchestras face each other, making a musical cross," Sellars explains in an interview with chorus master Simon Halsey. "People aren't performing out, they’re performing in to each other,” with the Philharmonie audience encircling the stage. Some soloists sing from the stage, others from the audience.
But despite the theatricality, it’s not a play. "It's a prayer, a meditation,” Sellars says. And to set the stage spiritually, he invites the choir “to dedicate the opening to someone they care about, someone who is still with them or maybe not, someone who is leaving the world now, who needs their help, their thoughts, an act of kindness.”
As oboist Andreas Wittmann told WQXR, some in the orchestra were initially skeptical but from the first rehearsal, they understood that this staging was really special. And even the instrumentalists occasionally had to step outside and weep as they felt the urgency, terror and finally the compassion of the story.
Bach composed this work almost 300 years ago, narrating Jesus’s last days up to and through the crucifixion, with text from the Gospel of Matthew and additional poetry set as recitations, arias and chorales.
As you listen, you can follow the libretto provided by the Emmanuel Church in Boston, where Sellars began staging Bach cantatas in the 1980s. It is in German and English here.
Camilla Tilling Soprano, Magdalena Kožená Mezzo-Soprano, Topi Lehtipuu Tenor (Arias), Mark Padmore Tenor (Evangelist), Thomas Quasthoff Baritone (Arias), Christian Gerhaher Baritone (Christ), Simon Halsey Chorus Master, Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin, Kai-Uwe Jirka Chorus Master, Peter Sellars Ritualization, Rundfunkchor Berlin
The Berlin Philharmonic's recordings are available at Arkivmusic.com and on iTunes.