I seldom hear or see a Matthew Passion that does not move me. All I would say about this Rattle/Berlin Phil/Sellars 'ritualisation' is that it is the one I come back to again and again. - and am endlessly delighted so to do. All the soloists - Mark Padmore, Christian Gerhaher,, Camilla Tilling, Magdalena Kozena, Topi Lehtipuu, and Thomas Quasthoff - both sing and act their roles to a very high standard. The choirs - freed from cradling their scores, able to express how that music makes them feel... all have their parts by heart, including the stalwarts of the Berlin Phil. All deserve credit, and the acknowledgement they get in the sumptuous book that accompanies the three discs.
It seems expensive, at around £30, but you get the Passion 'twice' - two DVDs, and a BluRay disc of the Passion plus extras. Peter Sellars is interviewed. I was very much taken by him and his contribution to this Bach St Matthew Passion. He lifts it away from black-clad soloists on chairs next to the conductor; a choir forced to keep still while every note they sing calls out for 'more'. and lets the Passion be passionate. Even Sir Simon joins in
The Passion is a great piece of drama, apart from all the other things it is. Why not let all the participants show on their faces, and by movement, what they are feeling; take on board the characters they are inhabiting? I have watched and listened to my set six or seven times. I have a BluRay player, and a fairly decent pair of headphones (and the cheapest headphone amplifier from Fiio). With this 'set-up' I can listen to and participate in the tragedy enacted. I can read the beautiful translation of the text on-screen, and not be straining my eyes to keep up with events in a pamphlet.
All this, you might say, are the rewards of DVDs. You can play them as often as you like until they are a part of you. You can read the subtitles and 'get' what is going on. I suppose it's obvious, but with this 'ritualised' set I found I could understand many things that I have missed using CDs or going to a 'conventional' performance. Never is the music sacrificed; This is a full-blown performance, taken at a respectful tempo. But it is also an event....probably what people experience at Passion plays in Germany or Spain. What would Pasolini's 'Gospel According to St. Matthew' be without the music of Bach AND the fine acting of his - mainly amateur - cast?
I confess to not having bought this product from Amazon. For once, they didn't seem to be selling somethingt I was looking for. I got my set direct from the Berlin Philharmonic, and then bought a second copy for American friends from PrestoClassical (paying much less there), Here are some of my favourite moments: 1. Mark Padmore throughout 2. Camilla Tilling throughout. 'Wonderful voice and so wonderfully pregnant I worried she might not make it through to the end. 3. Magdalena Kozena. Comfortable in both voice and demanding role (she managed to get her own back on Camilla in the 'St John Passion' by also being pregnant). 4. Thomas Quasthoff. Voice, persona, and lovely tender expressions when in dialogue with Padmore, a fierce violinist, and a passionate cellist. 5. The woman in the choir wearing glasses, who changed in a trice from devout prayer singer to angry crowd demanding Christ's death. I could go on...
Oh dear. Here we have an entirely serviceable performance - musically - of the great Passion (nothing revelatory, nothing too jarring) marred beyond hope by Peter Sellars,
Apparently, Bach's music can't be trusted to evoke thought and feeling in the audience, or maybe the audience can't be trusted to understand Bach's music: either way every moment of this 'ritualisation' is rendered ridiculous by the over-acting of the choir and soloists. Everyone on stage seems afflicted by a deadly bout of constipation: emotion caricatured, awe exchanged for sanctimony, a masterpiece illustrated by adolescent sensibilities.
Such a pity, because Mark Padmore (the Evangelist) really is in marvellous voice, as is the heavily pregnant Camilla Tilling. Both deserve better than the amateur dramatics which, apparently, Euro audiences require.