Rattle Conducts Bach's St. Matthew Passion

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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The Berlin Philharmonic perform Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion' at the Park Avenue Armory in October. The Berlin Philharmonic perform Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion' at the Park Avenue Armory in October. (© Monika Rittershaus)

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

Below is a video trailer for the performance. A full video can be seen at the orchestra's Digital Concert Hall. A complementary pass for a 2-day trial is available by using the code, WQXR.

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

Comments [6]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Like Shakespeare, JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH, had such comprehensive vision of the world he knew and such an imagination and compositional virtuosity to reach deep into many formats and get his message across. MOZART, BEETHOVEN and WAGNER IMHO are the only other musical geniuses that may still be as BACH widely played and appreciated one hundred years from now. Great as BACH was/is each composer has his/her own style and format and content so it is not appropriate to claim the top of the totem pole to any one great composer, no matter how great. I am partial to RICHARD WAGNER because his music most touchest both my personal and professional life. But Mozart, Beethoven, Bellini, Verdi, Puccini, Berlioz, Saint-Saens, Gounod, Massenet, Debussy, Giordano, Schubert, Arnold Schonberg, Brahms, Richard and Johann Strauss, Moussorsky, Borodin, Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Bizet, Meyerbeer and Hugo Wolf all have legitimate claims on my leisure as well as professional life. Ask a mother or father who their favorite child is if they have more than one and one will see it is not that easy to marginalize one's preferences. ALL deserve our attention and respect. There will always be time and devotion cheerfully dedicated to the presentation of this great master's ouevre. The test of time is virtually always the most respected judgment on the preciousness of anything. BACH's music has met that test. JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH is one of the great titanic geniuses of music and his music and its influence will be forever with us no matter what the current fads that will turn up as certainly as day follows night. SIngers and instrumentalists and music lovers all clamor for more BACH. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, an opera composer ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"], teacher of voice production and I train and coach big-voiced singers in the Wagner rep and actors in the Shakespeare oeuvre. www.WagnerOpera.com

Nov. 13 2014 12:40 AM

How I wish I could play, conduct, or even sing in the Boy's Choir...
Thank you.

Nov. 06 2014 03:46 PM
Renate from NYC

Superb! Thank you.

Nov. 05 2014 06:09 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha,\ NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton,,NJ

BACH'S ST MATTHEW PASSION is one of music's greatest masterpieces. We are so lucky to have such significant masterful interpretations on records and in performance. GLENN GOULD was as mentioned by many who have heard him as a PHENOMENON !!! His concern that performing in public would be as distraction to him is greatly at odds to the attitude of most performers, myself included. As LEE STRASBERG told me after my class presentation of OTHELLO'S DEATH SCENE in the original SHAKESPEARE version, not the VERDI opera, in one of his classes, that the venue and the audience and all the circumstances may add to the performance if the spontaneity of taking all the factors into consideration results in a brand new concept and its processing for the audience. GLENN GOULD's personality and passion for getting to the essence of what he played whether that was the composer's intention or not, it was what GLENN determined it to be. Artists in the aural and pictorial fields often change what they feel about their subject matter. That does not mean that their earlier impressions were wrong, but onjy that they may be different. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, an opera composer ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"], teacher of voice production and train and coach big-voiced singers in the Wagner rep and actors in the Shakespeare oeuvre. www.WagnerOpera.com

Nov. 05 2014 09:46 AM
Reid Condit from San Francisco

Following your instructions, I still can't access the libretto.

Nov. 04 2014 09:44 PM

Lovely. A great gift to the listeners...

Nov. 04 2014 09:23 PM

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