Adding staging to J.S. Bach’s highly fraught St. Matthew Passion could tip it into melodrama. But for Peter Sellars his production is ‘not a show, not theatre, it’s a prayer’. Here was a concert that never became a vehicle for display. Its focus was on the suffering of Christ, not the individual performer.

Simon Ratle with the Berlin Philharmonic © Chris Christodoulou
Simon Ratle with the Berlin Philharmonic
© Chris Christodoulou
That is not to say that this concert was lacking in dazzling performances. Sellars’ staging allowed every performer – including instrumentalists, choir and conductor Simon Rattle – to move with agility. This was especially important for the soloists, who were given the freedom to use the stage’s space. Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená took advantage of this. In her aria ‘Buss und Reu’ (‘Repentance and remorse’) her movements were a natural extension of her words, and her quirky gestures in ‘Sehet! Sehet, Jesu hat die Hand’ (Behold! See, Jesus has his hand’) were utterly engaging. Her singing meanwhile was characterful, capturing both misery and sweetness.

Camilla Tilling, Mark Padmore, Simon Rattle and members of the Berlin Philharmonic © Chris Christodoulou
Camilla Tilling, Mark Padmore, Simon Rattle and members of the Berlin Philharmonic
© Chris Christodoulou
Yet it was Mark Padmore in the role of the Evangelist who held the drama together. Not only did he have the crucial narrative role, his constant presence meant other soloists could bounce off him. They sung to Padmore and interacted with him. In some ways, Padmore represented a God-like figure: he was at the centre with the powers of the omniscient narrator. But the performance never became about him. His dramatic recitatives revealed a performer who was highly involved in the Passion’s events. Padmore was unafraid of holding long pauses between lines of the narration, as if needing as much time to reflect on the events as the audience. Padmore was both the all-knowing narrator and a member of the audience witnessing the events of the Passion unfolding.

Taking attention away from the singers and turning them into only a vehicle of expression was an achievement. None of the soloists revealed any struggle in their voices, pushing attention onto the words and not onto any vocal difficulties. Dressed in black, the soloists sung from memory, seeming not like a rehearsed vocal display but a spontaneous outpouring of emotion. Sellars’ staging added to this. He would bring instrumental soloists forward, putting them on equal terms with the singer. In tenor Topi Lehtipuu’s aria ‘Geduld, Geduld’ (‘Patience, patience’), Ulrich Wolff on the Viola da gamba was brought forward: Lehtipuu sang to the instrumentalist so that Wolff became part of the onstage action. The audience saw something incredibly intimate, witnessing a personal interaction – perhaps a prayer – between singer and player.

Magdalena Kozena © Chris Christodoulou
Magdalena Kozena
© Chris Christodoulou
The Berlin Radio Choir also sang from memory and became characters in this drama. Far from being frozen onlookers, they shuffled and swayed randomly, like a real crowd responding to the unfolding events. Rattle, too, was hardly dependent on the score, with the mobility to take a step back and wander between soloists and the double choirs and orchestras. A striking moment was when Rattle conducted right in front of the choir, with a direct line of communication to them since neither held nor looked at scores. Rattle could pull a huge amount of expression from the choir: such unhindered interaction was electrifying.

Removing Rattle from the central conductor’s podium prevented him from attracting attention. Nevertheless, he expertly mediated between the soloists and orchestra. In bass-baritone Eric Owens' aria ‘Gerne will ich mich bequemen’ (Gladly will I agree’) the Berlin Philharmonic were excellent accompanists, never overpowering the singer. But Rattle still allowed the strings to occasionally peep through proving that they could lament too. 

Rattle’s treatment of the chorales was unorthodox. He did not mechanically stride through them in a way reminiscent of bored congregational singing. Instead, he gave the words the lead, varying the speed, volume and even inserting pauses between phrases in response. In the chorale ‘Ich will hier bei dir stehen’ (‘I will stand beside thee here’) the choir entered with rigour. But Rattle carefully drew them back for the words ‘Wenn dir dein Herz bricht’ (‘when thy heart breaks’). In other performances, the chorales may have acted as light relief. But for Rattle they were another aspect of the drama, equally capable of intense expression.

Though the Royal Albert Hall is huge, Rattle insisted on reducing the Berlin Philharmonic to two small chamber orchestras. But the level of expression Rattle achieved was astounding. The orchestra and singers always projected, but it never felt brashly loud. Instead, especially in the arias for singer and continuo alone, the audience were pulled in. Though a considerable distance could be separating the performers from the audience, with such concentrated performances it was impossible not to become involved. We became part of their prayer too.