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BACH:   Johannes-Passion

spacer Tilling, Kožená; Padmore, Lehtipuu, Williams, Gerhaher; Berlin Philharmonic, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Rattle. Production: 
Sellars. BPHR 140031 (1 Blu-Ray, 2 DVDs), 135 mins. (oratorio), 52 mins. (bonus), subtitled

Video St. John passion Cover 1115

This release makes a stunning case for Bach’s “other” Passion. In their staged rendering of the Saint John Passion, director Peter Sellars and conductor Simon Rattle — who guides the Berlin Philharmonic, the marvelous Rundfunkchor Berlin and an impressive lineup of vocal soloists — show that this long-neglected work, far from being a kind of poor relation to the towering Saint Matthew Passion, is a powerful masterpiece in its own right. 

John Eliot Gardiner, in his illuminating book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, notes that, despite its “dramatic punch” and invocation of operatic convention (with its hero and villains), the Saint John Passion is “emphatically … not an opera.” Sellars brilliantly evokes the piece’s original ecclesiastical context while also presenting its tense drama. He has staged the piece in his signature, quasi-ritualistic manner. Soloists and chorus move in precise choreographic gestures, almost defiantly anti-naturalistic yet expressively exact and deeply in tune with Bach’s musical impulses. The soloists become both actors and celebrants; at moments when instrumental soloists and the continuo section take over, Rattle puts down his baton and becomes a witness to the unfolding action. Sellars’s greatest achievement here is in capturing the protean nature of Bach’s use of the chorus. In the opening, “Herr, unser Herrscher,” they are wailing supplicants; during Christ’s trials, the ferociously vindictive mob; and at the final chorale, “Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein,” devout parishioners, taking sustenance from the profound religious ceremony unfolding before our eyes. The tactic softens the piece’s notorious anti-Semitism; in Sellars’s presentation, all of the crowd’s actions — even its vilification of Christ — feel deeply human. 

As in the Matthew Passion, the Evangelist in the John Passion is at the center of Bach’s account. Here, he is Mark Padmore, commanding attention through the whole piece: his stage authority enables him to serve as the medium through which we apprehend the epic narrative. Padmore’s tenor is not a sensuous instrument, but its astringency suits the telling of a story with anguish at its core. Jesus has a more active role here than in the Matthew Passion: he’s the defendant in the two trial scenes that form the core of the work. The staging places Jesus’ ordeals in the center of the action; the casting of Roderick Williams, noble of mien and lithely physical, justifies the strategy.

Bass-baritone Christian Gerhaher performs several duties here — Peter in Part I, Pontius Pilate in Part II, and the work’s bass arias. This multitasking raises some interesting ambiguities: Is it the tormented Pilate we hear mourning Jesus in “Mein teurer Heiland”? The aria finds the masterful lied singer securely within his element; earlier, he struggles with the passagework of “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen.” But all of Gerhaher’s assignments benefit from the thoughtfulness of his approach and his scrupulous projection of the text. 

The childlike purity of Camilla Tilling’s soprano makes her an apt interpreter of the joyful “Ich folge dir gleichfalls”; later, she inflects her essentially sunny instrument to convey the sorrow in “Zerfliesse, mein Herz.” The work’s alto arias benefit from Magdalena Kožená’s smoky mezzo, fluently deployed. Kožená, who is married to Rattle, is manifestly pregnant here, a circumstantial detail that in context proves intensely meaningful — evidence, in the midst of Christ’s Passion, of the continuity of life force. The one vocal soloist who falls short is tenor Topi Lehtipuu. In Music in the Castle of Heaven, Gardiner notes that the “exceptional difficulty” of the aria “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” demands that “we ponder human fallibility”; Lehtipuu’s quavery, roughly intoned reading proves the point vividly.

The Berlin Philharmonic wouldn’t fool anyone into thinking it’s a period band. But it’s tempting to think that Bach himself would have applauded its merits. As led by Rattle, its textures are transparent and its rhythms buoyantly alert. The work of the Rundfunkchor, meanwhile, is astonishing — not only in the choristers’ full-throttle commitment to Sellars’s staging ideas but in the precision of their ensemble and the rich, blended sound they produce. In a bonus video, chorus master Simon Halsey talks about the weeks of rehearsal the group put into this project; from the evidence here, every minute counted. spacer 

FRED COHN

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