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GRAMOPHONE (11/2014)
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Berliner Philarmoniker

Code-barres / Barcode: 4260306180318 (ID484)

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Reviewer:   Peter Quantrill

The idea of faith merits not a single mention in almost an an hour of spoken material ancillary to this luxuriously packaged set. Indeed, more than any of Peter Sellars’s previous dramatic engagements with Bach – not only the St Matthew Passion but solo cantatas with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson – his ritualisation brings an urgent sense of the present to John’s magnificently abstract gospel narrative, and that sense of the present hardly swerves from its focus on doubt, cruelty and the impossibility of peace. Central to Sellars’s concept is not Christus or the Evangelist but the conscience-stricken figure of Pilate, onstage almost throughout. ‘Who killed Jesus?’ asked the programme note of a Good Friday performance I once attended in Coventry Cathedral. ‘We did.’


Those who are comfortable with the historicist credentials of Brüggen and Kuijken, or the certainties of Richter – in the filmed version, radiating a concentrated power all its own – may feel reluctant to explore, with Sellars and Rattle, the depth of suffering experienced by, in particular, the Evangelist and Christus, no less than the disordered collective mentality of the chorus as they switch from anti-Semitic mob to guilt-ridden penitents. Turning off the screen won’t do, either, because the expressive risks taken all round push singers and instrumentalists to extremes of expression located specifically within their dramatic context. On its own terms – and how else should we take it? – the performance makes for the kind of compulsive but almost unwatchable experience familiar from Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten and the films of Michael Haneke, godless works of art if ever there were such.


The rough tone and choppy phrasing of Topi Lehtipuu in ‘Erwäge’ would not do in ecclesiastical or studio settings but it works as a meditation on Christ’s scourging, directly following the weary, ambivalent legato of ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’ sung by Christian Gerhaher as Pilate. The declamatory hysteria of Magdalena Kožená in ‘Es ist vollbracht’ stands at a polar distance from the composed resignation exemplified by Bernarda Fink on Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s second recording (SDG, 6/11). Usually one of the few moments of light relief, the flute-led B flat major of ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ is lent a shrill insistence by Camilla Tilling as she urges Pilate towards a kind of redemption in the arms of Roderick Williams’s Christus.


These arias are underpinned by some exquisite obbligato contributions from members of the Berlin Philharmonic, who seem more ready to match the singers and colour the text than four years previously in their recording of the St Matthew. Leading the continuo is a busy lutenist, Björn Colell, above the still-characteristic Berlin bass sound. The sound production, especially on Blu-ray, places instrumentalists on equal footing with singers, even more so in the 5.1 surround mix.

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