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Bach's St. Matthew Passion: Ritualized And Riveting

An excerpt from J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion, as performed by the Berlin Philharmonic with stage direction by Peter Sellars.

Johann Sebastian Bach never wrote an opera, but his St. Matthew Passion comes close — especially in an extraordinary new DVD of a semi-staged performance featuring the Berlin Philharmonic.

Director Peter Sellars doesn't consider what he's done with Bach's version of the Passion story narrative theater. Instead, Sellars thinks of his "ritualization" as more of a prayer or a meditation. He had the chorus, vocal soloists and even some of the Berlin Philharmonic players memorize the piece, freeing them from their sheet music to become actors in the story.

The musicians "aren't performing out, but they're performing in — to each other," Sellars says in an video interview. "And what you're getting is a community engaging with itself, and you're watching a community work through issues together."

As Bach's opening waves of sound pour out with a double chorus singing "Come ye daughters, share my mourning," the choristers themselves are walking dejectedly about the stage, heads lowered in grief. In the aria "Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder," there's a face-off between bass Thomas Quasthoff, who pleads "Give me back my Lord," and violinist Daishin Kashimoto, whose agitated runs mimic Quasthoff's frustration.

These interactions extend to the viewer. Sellars' surprisingly simple ideas draw us deeply into the drama and prove enormously moving. It's practically impossible not to feel emotionally spent afterward.

I can only imagine how much more powerful Sellars' heightened sense of community must have been for the audience. This live performance, conducted by Simon Rattle exactly two years ago, is tailored to the Philharmonie, a concert hall laid out with a stage that allows patrons to surround the musicians. Some of the chorus even ventures into the audience.

It helps to have a dream cast of players. British tenor Mark Padmore, so keyed into Bach's word painting as the Evangelist (the principal narrator, but in this version also acting as Jesus), gives a dramatically rich, multi-layered performance that stands as one of his foremost achievements. Like Padmore, most of the vocal soloists specialize in song repertoire, giving them an edge in applying dramatic meaning to every word. Quasthoff's arias are by turns feisty and bittersweet, and mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená's beauty of tone and sensuous drama make up for her less than incisive German diction.

Religious convictions aside, Bach's melodies, with their sweetness, suffering and fortitude, tell a story with universal sensibilities: loyalty, loss and hope for a better future.

"Bach wrote the music for us to place everything we hope and care about into the vessel of this music," Sellars says. "And the music will not only carry it but elevate it."

The DVD is on the orchestra's own label and available exclusively at its online store.

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