United Kingdom BBC Prom 66 – Bach, St Matthew Passion: Soloists, Berlin Radio Choir; Choristers of Wells and Winchester Cathedrals; Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle. Royal Albert Hall, London, 6.9.2014 (CC)
After a night of Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and a Puccini encore, all in the safe hands of the Berliner Philharmoniker and Rattle, it was quite a shift to the world of Peter Sellars’ staging of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Bach’s masterpiece remains one of the pinnacles of Western art; any attempt at staging has to honour and enhance, not contradict, this status. All credit, then, to Peter Sellars, whose use of objective, plain boxes on-stage, imaginative use of space (both within the auditorium and between characters on-stage) and grasp of the ritualistic processes involved result in a triumph. I have not seen Sellars’ Stravinsky Oedipus Rex, another work he has tackled, but on the present evidence I’d snap up a ticket for it.
The Matthew Passion is no mere snippet (the performance, which a 7pm start, ended at 10:19pm) and, like all truly great music that expresses myth (think Wagner here, and perhaps Birtwistle), it seems often to operate outside of time – or, at the very least, to bend time’s fabric. Under Rattle’s direction, that is precisely what happened here. Such was the concentration of the performance (vocally, chorally and instrumentally), such was the understanding of the music’s trajectory, that time seemed simultaneously stretched as one fell under the music’s spell, yet compressed as one looked at the clock in disbelief at the concert’s close.
Rattle did not conduct from one place only, but moved as the score demanded. The double chorus was split across the stage, and sometimes he moved to one side, sometimes he was centre back, sometimes front. His preternatural stillness in the arias with minimal instrumentation (which he did not conduct) seemed to add to his presence.
Having such a strong cast helps immeasurably, of course. (It is almost identical to that on the DVD/Bluray, available from the Berlin Philharmonic’s website). The evening really went to Mark Padmore, whose Evangelist was of the highest standard imaginable. Phrasing, tuning and diction were impeccable throughout, but it was his immersion into Bach’s created world that impressed most. He has clearly lived this part (and this production), so that while the delivery is fresh, there is an underlying unshakable confidence. His vocal tone, from the outset, was something very special, gorgeous to hear yet infinitely flexible in expression. Nothing seemed a challenge technically – his high entry at the outset of “Peter’s Denial” (“Petrus aber sass draussen im Palast”) was impeccable. True, there was some sense of strain audible intermittently from “Judas in the Temple” onwards, but it really was occasional, a major assumption.
Christian Gerhaher was a deep-voiced, strong Christus. He stands away from the other performers, raised at the back of the stage, a being separate from mere mortals, involved in yet separate from the drama which hold him as central. In any other company, his diction and his responsiveness to the text would put him into a special category of his own; it is testament to the excellence of casting that here one merely noted it. The burnished mezzo of Magdalena Kožená was perfectly apt for this staging, and it was good to hear Kožená at the very top of her game. Her “Du lieber Heiland du … Buss’ und Reu’”, with obbligato flutes, was a highlight in a performance wherein it seems churlish to select highlights. As she sang, she massaged Padmore’s back, her phrasing deliciously shaded. Later, post-interval, her aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” was magnificently poignant. And later, the staggeringly original scoring of the recitative “Erbarm es Gott!” seemed to inspire her to deliver a stunningly anguished vocal line.
Soprano Camilla Tilling might have misjudged the acoustic and been on the quiet side for her aria “Ich will mein Herze schenken”, but she was as true of pitch as she was pure of tone and the distanced effect was not repeated. Her recitative and aria, “Er hat uns allen wohlgetan … Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” was given with clarion clarity. Topi Lehtipoo was a fine tenor soloist. Only Eric Owens’ bass-baritone disappointed, rather weaker than the rest of the cast in heft and alignment with the ongoing musical argument. In any other circumstances he would probably have been fine, but this performance was of such stature that any imperfection was preternaturally spotlit. In addition, Owens’ higher register sounded strained. His aria, “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” showed some lack of clarity of diction.
The chorus (the justly famous Berlin Radio Choir) provided some of the finest choral singing this reviewer has heard. The chorales, so vital to this piece, seemed in this staging to act as choruses from an ancient Greek play. In contrast, when Bach demands rapid-fire delivery, the chorus sang with fine aplomb and preternatural accuracy. As the end came, the chorus crowded around Rattle before looking out at us, the audience. Striking, and magnificently conceived.
It came as no surprise given the excellence of the orchestra that all obbligati were taken with technical ease and a perfect sense of style; all continuo work was impeccable. This is my final Prom of the Season, and it surely has to be the most memorable.