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 Recording of the Week  Bach's St Matthew Passion

A ‘ritualization’ of the Matthew Passion? I was intrigued and, yes, a tiny bit sceptical when I heard about this: Peter Sellars recalls on the documentary that when he first broached the question of how to stage the work he was curtly informed that ‘you do it on Good Friday, in a church’, which pretty much summed up my own attitude – until I gave this performance a go. Sellars hasn’t dramatised the work as such, but simply freed it from the static confines of a standard concert-performance by breaking down the barriers between performers and audience. The mostly ‘off-copy’ singers are placed in the auditorium at times, and the double-chorus and -orchestra format is played up so that performers seem to become audience when not actively involved in the music.

Camilla Tilling, Mark Padmore and Emmanuel Pahud
Camilla Tilling, Mark Padmore and Emmanuel Pahud

If you’re wary of Sellars’s predilection for time-specific updatings and stylised chorus choreography then don’t be put off. The crowd scenes gain terrifying momentum when you see the singers literally spurring one another on, and the sense of collective mourning elsewhere is immensely powerful as the singers move around to comfort one another, with ‘scripted’ gestures kept to a minimum.

Rattle uses just four aria soloists rather than the eight usually favoured in period performances and Sellars doesn’t impose specific characters upon them as such, though there’s the implication that the heavily-pregnant soprano Camilla Tilling and the glamorous but dishevelled Magdalena Kozena represent the two Marys. Sellars points out that Kozena recently recorded Carmen with the orchestra, and she brings much of the physicality of that role to bear here. It’s not as incongruous as it sounds: as he suggests, Mary Magdalene’s actions are every bit as subversive as Carmen’s, and as she re-enacts the controversial anointment by massaging the Evangelist’s body during Buss und Reu the chorus’s outraged reaction is given real impetus.

It’s also very poignant to see and hear Thomas Quasthoff in the sublime bass arias – this supremely eloquent singer announced his retirement from the concert-platform shortly after this performance and his Mache dich is a fitting coda to an inspirational career.

One of his generation’s foremost Evangelists, Mark Padmore here becomes a man re-living and articulating these terrible events for the first time: before he even sings a note, his body-language marks him as a trauma victim on the verge of total emotional breakdown after witnessing torture and execution up close. It’s a visceral, harrowing performance, so much so that I felt almost voyeuristic at times. At one point, a camera close-up reveals that he is actually weeping as he listens to a chorale. At several crucial moments the Evangelist seems to become or represent Jesus: Christian Gerhaher sings the role with his usual understated sincerity from a balcony, the sole figure who never mingles with the others, whilst the Evangelist himself re-enacts the Last Supper, Judas’s kiss and the scourging.

The reduced-force Berlin Phil players are – predictably – superb, but so integrated into the whole that the ‘starriness’ of some of the instrumentalists only registers on second viewing. The soprano aria Aus liebe boasts Emmanuel ‘Flute King’ Pahud, Albrecht ‘Magic of the Oboe’ Mayer and star gamba-player Hille Perl in solo roles, but one of the most moving moments for me was a wonderful close-up of a silent Pahud totally immersed in his colleagues’ performance in Part One.

The obbligato instrumentalists move to enter into dialogue with their vocal soloist, so that tenor Topi Lehtipuu has the oboist quite literally by his side in his first aria, and violinist Daishin Kashimoto is the focus of Quasthoff’s frustrated rage in Gibt mir meinen Jesu wieder.

Incidentally, if you’re on the look-out for some top-notch new Bach devoid of visuals, then I can heartily recommend Philippe Herreweghe’s new B minor Mass on his own label, which has all the clarity and energy we’ve come to expect from this conductor and his Flemish forces, plus some absolutely scintillating brass playing in the Gloria! But if you’re feeling open to something rich and strange, then I urge you to investigate that Berlin DVD.

Bach, J S: Mass in B minor, BWV232

Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC