Like dozens of the most searching and accomplished musicians of our day, Simon Rattle has found collaborating with Peter Sellars a peak experience, if not the peak experience, of his career. Rattle's maiden ascent of the Everest that is Bach's St. Matthew Passion, leading generations of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Rundfunkchor Berlin to whom the path was also new, took place in the Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, at Eastertime 2010. The following week, they took the challenge on again at the Philharmonie in Berlin, where they also recorded the live DVD. Per Rattle, it was "the single most important thing we ever did here."
Sellars was along every step of the way as spiritual Sherpa. On a DVD bonus track, he speaks as one giddy, even drunk, on intellectual adventure, exhibiting his characteristically panoramic grasp of relevant history, coupled with an equally blazing conviction of links between the material at hand and our own lives and times. He speaks of the physicality of Bach's music, the irrelevance of "style," the superior spiritual power of art over that of ostensibly spiritual institutions. Rather than approach the St. Matthew Passion as a monument to be admired from afar, he explains, he invited the musicians to go inside, explore it from within, make it intimately and uniquely their own.
These are unassailable goals, consistent with gospel Sellars has been preaching since day one of his ministry. A catch at this late date, even for true believers, may be that the aching authenticity and ostentatious solidarity with the downtrodden he never fails to elicit from performers too often read as justanother case of portentous improv clichés.
His program credit this time reads "ritualization." Everyone wears black. But ritual is not something that can be willed into being. It is a vessel shaped by generations, into which new generations pour the experience of moments that will never come again. It is the mirror in which the unique reflects the universal.
Here, an oblong plywood box occupies center stage, doubling as table and coffin. The distraught chorus shuffles about, gesticulating, making faces. Mark Padmore's sunken-eyed Evangelist identifies so thoroughly with the story as to function as the surrogate Christ, enacting the Stations of the Cross, prostrating himself at the edge of the stage like Anna Netrebko in I Puritani, receiving Judas's eight-second kiss on the lips.
If none of this enhances his reading of the words and music, neither does it detract. The expressive compass of Padmore's clean, lean tenor ranges from ashen whispers to flights of incandescent falsetto, every syllable imbued with bone-deep compassion. Stranded on a balcony, Christian Gerhaher's Christus exercises the option of simply singing his lines — and of singing them simply, with a noble expressivity in which sentimental pieties play no part.
Back at stage level, Topi Lehtipuu delivers much of the tenor part on his knees, in instrumental, radiant tones that match the artless sincerity of his features. Seated on a crate, Thomas Quasthoff sculpts the bass arias with introvertedmajesty. Barefoot, pregnant and in blue mascara, Camilla Tilling invests the soprano's music with limpid luster.
And then there's the grotesque diva tour from Magdalena Kožená, channeling her namesake Mary Magdalene in a sequined gown, her face scrubbed raw. (No shoes for her either.) Her hands fly skyward. She does a dervish whirl or two. She badgers a couple of choristers, lays chaste hands on others, bestows sisterly kisses now and then. All the while, the alto solos pour forth from her in tones of molten amber, phrased as if by a goddess.
As you would expect of the Berlin Philharmonic, the soloists in the instrumentobbligatos are uniformly prime, Daniel Stabrawa (violin) and Albrecht Mayer(oboe) especially so. Rattle's transparent account of the score, informed but never straitjacketed by recent stylistic investigation, as crisp as it is fluent, deserves more detailed praise than space permits here.
Let the record show that the Berlin audience was very taken. The final bars were followed by a forty-second silence.
Camilla Tilling, Magdalena Kožená; Mark Padmore ,Christian Gerhaher, Topi Lehtipuu, Thomas Quasthoff; Rundfunkchor Berlin, Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle. Production: Peter Sellars. Berlin Philharmoniker BPH120011 (2 DVDs) or BPH120012 (Blu-ray), 195 mins. (concert), 51 mins. (bonus), subtitled.