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Bach St Matthew Passion

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

JS Bach
St Matthew Passion
Mark Padmore (Evangelist), Christian Gerhaher (Jesus), Camilla Tilling (soprano), Magdelena Kozena (mezzo), Topi Lehtipuu (tenor), Thomas Quasthoff (bass); Berlin Radio Chorus; Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle; dir. Peter Sellers (Berlin 2010)
Berliner Philharmoniker BPHR140021


‘It’s not theatre. It’s a prayer’ is how Peter Sellars describes his ‘ritualisation’ of the St Matthew Passion. Choirs, soloists and instrumental obbligatists memorised their music so that, to paraphrase the Beethoven of the Missa solemnis, ‘from the heart it goes straight to the heart’ – though when viewing the performance on DVD the ‘receiving heart’ initially takes a little persuading. On screen the opening chorus fidgets, and, perhaps super-sensitive to the occasion, Mark Padmore’s first recitatives seem drawn out in their desire to nail every reverential nuance. When Magdalena Kožená (a cross between Mary Magdalene and Kundry) emotes ‘Buss und Reu’, seemingly giving Padmore a back massage with her elbows (before verging towards an activity rather unsuitable for family viewing), the project so charismatically elucidated by Sellars in a lengthy bonus interview threatens to turn indulgent. But that doesn’t happen. Some of Sellars’s gestures – Padmore’s hand over Judas’s at the Last Supper, the lingering kiss which seals the betrayal, the Evangelist delivering his last words as if entombed – are searing, and the rapt attention of the audience leaps out of the screen, almost as palpable as the physicality of the performers.

Padmore is a great Evangelist and this must be his greatest performance of the role. Spatially despatched to a balcony, Christian Gerhaher’s Christus is the son of (every)man, while the symbiosis entwining vocal and instrumental soloists leavens Simon Rattle’s compelling musical direction. Ultimately, a St Matthew Passion even greater than the sum of its parts – and they were already pretty awesome to begin with!


Paul Riley