David Haslett wrote (April 10, 2010):
Three performances - all sold out months ago; people donating kidneys to get tickets.
I could only manage (through contacts) a free pass to the final rehearsal/run through. The good news is that the final performance will be available as a pay for view live streaming on Sunday. I urge all lovers of Bach and music drama to watch it. I will be watching it though I am tempted to go along with a 'Suche Karte' notice on Sunday.
It constitutes one of the half dozen or so greatest musical experiences of my life.
Potentially, the most contentious part of the event is likely to be Sellars' contribution. He designates it a 'ritualisation'. This means, in essence, no set or costumes. All soberly wearing contemporary black clothes. There are clear divisions of the two choruses - and the two orchestras with the continuo set between them. The 'action' takes place principally at the forefront of the stage but also moves to side balconies and even in the midst of the orchestra.
Anyone expecting an imposed 'interpretation' from Sellars would be either delighted or disappointed, depending on one's point of view. I might almost see it as an act of self abasement on Sellars' part.
All extraneous business is pared away and the focus is on elemental emotions of grief, despair, longing. Simplicity is the keynote with a telling use of looks, touching and spatial relationships with unexpected interaction between soloists and instrumental soloists so that arias often become a searching dialogue between the singer and the player.
The most devastating single thing that Sellars has done is to make the Evangelist the vessel through which Christ's Passion is poured. On stage throughout, he is the narrator of the events but also BECOMES the story he is telling. Christ is presented to one side, at a raised level - among his people one might say(the audience) - but it is the Evangelist who not only narrates but experiences his Passion. Thus, it is the Evangelist who is arrested in the garden, who receives the kiss of Judas (an unforgettable moment of the greatest intensity imaginable), who appears before Pilate, who is whipped, crucified and ultimately entombed.
Freed from scores, both chorus and soloists explore this greatest of music dramas with an insight and awareness of the inherent drama of the piece in the most searching of ways. Sellars' minimalist direction - never showy, never drawing attention to itself - illuminates not only the text but also the mighty structure of the work and indeed the music. He is the most musical of directors and consistently finds gesture that displays the distillation of the emotion of the music.
But one could simply shut one's eyes and find that this is the most glorious of interpretations of this sublime masterpiece. As conductor, Rattle searched for clarity above all; there was no sense of an imposed reading with an 'idea' to explore and everything simply seemed 'right'. After my recent experience of St John Passion in Leipzig I have found myself responding to modern instruments in Bach again. Rattle knows what the original instrument gang have to teach us (and I am a huge fan of Gardiner, Harnoncourt et al) - here it was evinced in clarity of line, a relative lack of vibrato, and a tendency to quite fast tempi (Rattle brought it in at around 2 hours 55 minutes - though this also includes a number of simply devastating silences). Strangely, the ultimate feeling I had was that this was a performance (for all its grandeur, which was certainly not neglected) that was very, very intimate. I felt, as never before, how few instruments are involved in the deepest emotional moments. Needless to say, the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic is peerless.
The singers were all wonderful. It has been suggested suggested that Kozema has a tiny voice or is some ways a hyped and minor singer. Watch this performance.
Quasthoff's voice is in decline - but he knows this music and what it is about.
Christian Gerhader as Christus... this is a voice I am crazy about. Such a personal sound, soft-grained perhaps but so full of nuance and understatement, emphasising the humanity of Christ.
As for Mark Padmore - this is surely the summit of his career. He had so much to do as actor and yet his singing of the Evangelist was searing in its intensity. So much colour! Magnificent and fully intelligible declamation of the text. Passionate, sorrowing, anguished, despairing - he made this the greatest of all operatic roles. So great a dynamic range (this hall has a fabulous acoustic so that the softest note imaginable carries). His performance is a tour de force except that it has nothing of the showiness that suggests.
The chorus - exemplary. They rose to every demand. Rattle once stopped them and asked for half the voice - I thought it already impossibly soft - but they responded with half the tone.
This was a performance seemingly devoid of ego - of the desire for one to better the other. All was subsumed in the desire to render justice to this greatest of all music dramas.
The first part ended with all the chorus - including the boys - spreading out throughout the entire hall. Impossibly dispersed, I thought. The Philharmonie is a concert hall in the round - the voices came from everywhere! To hear that sublime chorus in such a fashion! And when it ended Rattle said - 'How on earth did we bring all that together?'
But they did - and believe me, this is the kind of performance of which legends are made.