Peter Sellars’ Ritualization of the St. Matthew Passion

My wife is preparing to sing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with her chorus. Since we’ve been watching and enjoying Peter Sellars’ work since the beginning of his career, we thought we would watch his “ritualization”, performed by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, the Rundfunkchor Berlin, and an amazing cast of singers.

This performance has been getting ecstatic reviews. The choruses and the vocal and instrumental soloists all memorized their parts. Using the in-the-round space of the Berlin Philharmonie, the orchestra and chorus are laid out as Bach’s double chorus and double orchestra, performing to each other as well as the audience. The chorus and soloists have some (usually) simple blocking, with Mark Padmore as the Evangelist acting as Jesus in the staging. Christian Gerhaher singing Christus was stationed alone at a higher level than the orchestras and chorus. As Peter Sellars says in the wonderful bonus interview with Simon Halsey that comes with the disc, this is not theater, but a prayer and a meditation. The ritualization is there to free the performers to go to another level of expression, and to emphasize the musical community – both performers and audience – working through the Passion story.

This is an absolutely stunning, deeply profound performance. If you are a fan of Bach, or of Peter Sellars’ work, you simply must see and hear this. The cast is uniformly magnificent, including Magdalena Kožená, Thomas Quasthoff, Topi Lehtipuu, and Camilla Tilling. The Rundfunkchor Berlin, prepared by Simon Halsey, is superb, and the boy’s chorus, Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin, sings well in its brief role. As you would expect, the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle’s direction is incredibly beautiful and inspired. This was Sir Simon’s first time conducting the St. Matthew, and the first time performing it for many in the orchestra and chorus. It would be great if performances like this could lead to reclaiming this work for all to perform, not just the Baroque specialists.

This is only available directly from the Berlin Philharmonic’s online shop. Ordering and shipment to the USA is a breeze; the DVD and Blu-Ray discs are region-free.

If you want to see some of the performance first, there’s an excerpt at NPR, as well as a trailer on YouTube.

The interview with Peter Sellars and Simon Halsey about this performance is very insightful and wide-ranging. It’s included as an extra on the discs, but is also available in full on YouTube.

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