Posts Tagged ‘Rundfunkchor Berlin’

Ritual in the Philharmonie: Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’ and MusicAeterna

Friday, February 28th, 2014

By Rebecca Schmid

In the final scene of Bach’s St. John Passion, staged by Peter Sellars at the Philharmonie on Feb.27, the members of the Rundfunkchor gather in meditation around a spotlight, the rest of the hall submerged in darkness. The body of Jesus has been quietly removed during a lament of Mary Magdalene, his absence hovering in the afterglow. With only ten arias, St. John, J.S. Bach’s first completed Passion, finds its dramatic backbone in choral numbers illustrating both the adulation and persecution that accompanied Jesus’ final days before crucifixion. The chorus can transform from a blood-thirsty mob to a gathering of pleading individuals within one scene.

Sellars relies heavily on pantomime to illustrate their very human plight. The singers, at first lying like corpses, stretch their arms to the heavens during the opening “Herr, unser Herrscher” (Lord, our Lord), only to throw dice at the dying Jesus during “Lasset uns nicht zerteilen” (Let us not be divided). Although it is sometimes a challenge to take the chorus’ histrionic expressions seriously, the director manages to capture the ambiguity, hypocrisy, cruelty and spiritual deliverance of the Gospel while always working within the space of Bach’s transcendent score. The Rundfunkchor, singing its parts from memory, immerses itself completely in the interaction of music and gesture.

Sellars considers his recreations of the Passions not stagings but ritualizations. His 2010 production of St. Matthew with the Berlin Philharmonic and Rundfunkchor was such a success that the ensembles re-joined in St. John with all the same soloists save for the now-retired Thomas Quasthoff, here replaced by baritone Roderick Williams in the role of Jesus. The director opts for an even more raw approach in St. John to externalize the music’s fierce dramatic conflict. As he explained in a recent interview via Skype (see A Hall That Invites the Audience Into the Music-Making), while “Matthew” is filled with “contemplative spaciousness, “John” is “super immediate, super visceral and shockingly realistic, over and over again.”

While chorus and orchestra interwove like polyphony in the more generously scored St. Matthew, with a white tombstone representing Jesus’ ultimate fate, St. John is all flesh and blood, violence and stasis. In one of the most powerful moments, during Pilatus’ aria urging the chorus to make a pilgrimage to the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, the chorus shouts back “where to?” from all corners of the geometric, vertiginous Philharmonie. Even the stage hands, dressed in black like the choral members and musicians, are treated as a homogenous part of the action, blurring the boundaries between theater and life, religion and secularity.

As in St. Matthew, the tenor Mark Padmore grounded the performance with a portrayal of the Evangelist at once dramatically earnest and naturalist. Often seated at the edge of the stage, he narrated with a sense of clairvoyant regret. Extensive recitatives never grew dry due to Padmore’s clear, expressive timbre, impeccable diction and direct engagement with the audience. In the role of Pilatus, Christian Gerhaher was cast as an impotent bureaucrat of sorts, sitting centerstage in empty contemplation that sometimes bordered on the deranged. Yet he brought unaffected, baritonal purity to the aria “Mein teuer Heiland” (My beloved Savior), an intimate dialogue with cello continuo and choral accompaniment that is one of the most memorable numbers in St. John.

Magdalena Kožená, returning as a Mary Magdalene figure—but this time pregnant and in a lipstick red dress—also made the most of her few numbers, conveying quiet devastation in the aria “Es ist vollbracht” (The act is completed) with a velvety, rich tone and clear diction against viola da gamba and continuo. The soprano Camilla Tilling, although blessed with a creamy timbre and commanding presence, was not as well suited to the demands of Bach’s sinuous lines, sounding thin in the extended high notes of “Zerfließe, mein Herze” (Dissolve, my heart) as she wandered among of blanket of collapsed bodies.

The tenor Topi Lehtipuu is also not the ideal choice for baroque music, with a fast vibrato that weakened his arias. Williams, when not bound to the stage floor as the blind-folded Jesus, invested his lines with pain and spiritual depth. Sir Simon Rattle and a 13-strong ensemble struck a balance between introspection and charged energy that was well in keeping with the directorial conception.


Sellars received an unexpected homage earlier this month with the arrival of Teodor Currentzis and MusicAeterna. The ensemble brought an ambitious enough program on Feb.16, performing Handel’s Dixit Dominus alongside the Purcell opera Dido and Aeneas. But the young Greek conductor returned to the half-lit Philharmonie and announced that, with Sellars in the hall, the ensemble chorus would like to perform a ritual of sorts. The chorus moved through a sequence of expressive gestures in a number from Purcell’s Indian Queen, which the director staged for MusicAeterna last year in its home city of Perm.

While the classical music world has its pick of superb early music ensembles, from Concentus Musicus to Les Arts Florissants, the origins of MusicAeterna have a stake to originality. Currentzis assembled the ensemble himself in Novosibirsk, Siberia and managed to integrate both the chorus and ensemble into the Perm Opera—over 1,000 kilometers east of Moscow—upon becoming artistic director. The musicians’ non-bureaucratic genesis is still evident in their playing. The energy is high and fresh, if at times bordering on frenetic, and the communication so easy that the players breathe with Currentzis. Phrasing unfurls in shooting but clean lines, betraying hours of intense rehearsal.

This was particularly evident in the fugal seventh movement of Dixit Dominus. In the penultimate “De torrente in via bibet,” the strings’ gripping tension recalled the finest early music ensembles, although the choral soloists did not rise to the same standards. As a unit, however, the vocal ensemble produces an even, musical glow. Even if diction was an issue in the English-language libretto of Dido and Aeneas, the performance’s charm distracted from such details. Sopranos Anna Prohaska and Nurial Rial gave magnetic performances as Dido and Belinda, and Currentzis’ fluid, lanky gestures maintained a perpetual sense of momentum and dramatic intensity.

While dynamic architecture often pushed the boundaries of authentic performance practice, the sense of understatement in the final scene could not have been more effective. Against Prohaska’s florid ornamentation in reprises of “Thy hand, Belinda,” the orchestra’s sustained pianissimo hovered on the edge of an abyss.

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Nézet-Séguin performs Epic Romance with the Berlin Philharmonic

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

Conducting the Berlin Philharmonic is no small feat for a 37-year-old, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin—returning to the orchestra’s podium for the first time since his 2010 debut—had no intention to the make the event a small affair. The newly minted music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, seen at the Philharmonie on June 16, juxtaposed Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture with the full three movements of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé as sung by the Rundfunkchor Berlin. It took Ravel three years to complete this ‘choreographic symphony’ to a commission by Diaghilev in 1909, and the score is usually reduced to two-part suite arrangement (penned by composer in 1911) for concert performance. The 1912 premiere of the full ballet in Paris did not go down as a success following Diaghilev’s open disinterest in Ravel’s score during rehearsal and the opening of Débussy’s L’Après-midi d’un faune the previous month, featuring provocative choreography by Nizhinsky that usurped public attention.

While Daphnis et Chloé reveals Ravel’s intricate powers of orchestration at their height, with rich impressionist tapestries and pictorial evocations of celestial groves, its subtleties struggle to reign in the listener for its full duration (just under an hour) without the presence of a ballet corps. Much like Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète, which Sir Simon Rattle conducted last season alongside Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, it is—at least based on the performance I saw—a difficult piece to pull off in the concert hall. Nézet-Séguin had a clear sense of what we wanted from the orchestra and did not let the reins slack on a body of players who often dictate what is happening onstage at least as much as the conductor, and his French-speaking roots certainly worked to the performance’s advantage through the ethereal ebbs and flows of Ravel’s music, yet the Philharmonic’s handsome elegance remained a bit staid for moments of sheer nymph-like grace. The orchestra nevertheless thrived through the score’s transparent textures, such as the rapid flute and harp over muted strings that imitate the sound of rushing brooklets before building into a majestic view over the nymphs’ prairie in the third tableau.

The story, adapted by Michael Fokine from an ancient Greek romance, tells of the courtship between the goatherd Daphnis and the shepherdess Chloé, who is kidnapped by pirates but saved by her father, Pan. Once Daphnis and Chloé are reunited, a tumultuous final dance of the nymphs celebrates their union. Ravel weaves a simple two-note motive throughout the score to designate the pair’s mystical realm, easily evoking the earth’s breaking in the closing scene. The chorus is deployed atmospherically to enhance a sense of rapture, at one point emerging accompanied. The Rundfunkchor, which recorded this work with Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo in 2010, produced glorious tones here, particularly in the soprano section. Concert Master Guy Braunstein delivered his solo numbers with deeply sensitive musicianship, evoking Daphnis’ approach of Chloé and the young Nymph wandering in the meadow with gleaming tone. The flute and clarinet solos of the Lycanion dances emerged with characteristic elegance and fluidity of communication.

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, officially designated as a ‘fantasy overture,’ similarly illustrates the stormy Shakespearean love story in a programmatic development of contrasting tableaus, moving from the prescient concerns of Friar Lawrence before yielding to the feuding Capulets and Montagues. The rich cellos and woodwinds of the opening Andante revealed the Philharmonic in top form, and the violins lamented with a well-rounded vibrato under Braunstein. Nézet-Séguin led a tight, fiery Allegro, and the longing wind solos during the couple’s first meeting on Juliet’s balcony left little to be desired. Still, having recently heard the Marinsky, the seas of string pianissimi had a slightly brittle quality. The orchestra redeemed itself with the clean attacks and immaculate synchrony of the whirlwind inner movement. The elegiac homage to the lovers in the final Moderato, punctuated by the theme of the warring factions, burned with tension.

The program opened with Berio’s Sequenza IXa for clarinet solo, a virtuosic yet poetic exploration that Walter Seyfarth, a player with the Philharmonic since 1985, dispatched with impressive technical control and dynamic nuance. The piece takes the form of a structured yet unstable train of thought, evolving through runs across the instrument’s full range into a kind of internal dialogue that culminates in a blaring high note which is juxtaposed with increasingly vehement melodic opposition until it is echoed in resigned resolution. Allusions to the vocalisations of Berio’s spouse and muse Cathy Berberian and saxophone-like motifs expand the clarinet’s dimensions into nearly operatic planes. While the connection of this piece with the rest of the program remained unclear—an unusual occurrence at the Philharmonic—it is heartening to watch Berio become standard fare in the German capital.

The Philharmonie at dusk

The Philharmonie on Potsdamer Platz (c) Schirmer/Berliner Philharmoniker

St. Matthew leaves the Altar, takes to the Philharmonie

Friday, April 20th, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

Peter Sellars’ semi-staging of St. Matthew Passion for the Rundfunkchor Berlin and the Berlin Philharmonic, officially called a “ritualization” on the cover of the production’s recently-released DVD, may be one of his most daring enterprises to date. Interestingly though, Bach’s Passion already has a history as a subject of both artistic reverence and unorthodox reinterpretation. When Felix Mendelssohn brought the work back into fashion upon performing it with Berlin’s Singakademie in 1829—approximately a century after St. Matthew’s Leipzig premiere—he made several cuts to the original score, excluding all solo arias but two. “To think that it had to be an actor and a Jew to bring back the greatest Christian music for the people,” he reportedly exclaimed to his actor-friend, Eduard Devrient, who helped arrange the performance.

St. Matthew is officially a sacred cantata on a libretto by Picander, who set two chapters of the Gospel of Matthew in Luther’s translation, yet its episodic nature alternating arias, recitative, chorales, and choruses has been compared to Greek tragedy. If some scholarly articles are any indication, there may also be less compelling reason to confine the work to a Protestant church than one would think. A 1985 article by Rosalie Atlhol Schellhous in Musical Quarterly argues that the Passion is rooted more in a tradition of mysticism than direct Lutheran values, designating the work as a formal meditation or “mental prayer.”

Sellars, in a bonus interview with Rundfunchor Director Simon Halsey, consciously or unconsciously segues right into this discourse by comparing Bach to a “twelve-step process” that is not just about spiritual but physical transformation. It should be “vividly experiential rather than an intellectual proposition,” he says. “We’re opening it and going inside instead of admiring it as a monument from a distance.” Paradoxically, Sellars’ visual representations only emphasize how skillfully the theatrical and spiritual elements of St. Matthew Passion are embedded in the music itself.

The members of the Rundfunkchor admirably learned their parts by heart and were encouraged by Sellars to allow their individual personalities to shine through as they pondered the weight of Bach’s music. Yet their amateurish expressions of Lebensschmerz distract from its introspective qualities. Dressed in all-black, they walk around stage in a forlorn state during the opening chorus “Komm, ihr Töchter.” At the center of the stage is a tombstone-shaped block on which the Evangelist will lie with his wrists tied in invisible rope at the end of the piece, the chorus huddled around him. I struggled not to cringe at such touch-feely gestures.

It is of course hard to judge the effect this Passion had live. The production premiered in 2010 at the Salzburg Easter Festival and subsequently the Philharmonie, where it was filmed on the Berlin Philharmonic’s own label. Sellars, as he explains to Halsey, was inspired by the “360” pentagonal shape of Hans Scharoun’s architecture and sought to absorb the audience into the event by scattering singers throughout the hall. The footage is expertly edited and covers the full range of shots from various angles, but often lingers close to the stage. As is often the case in audiovisual documents, the close-ups prove bothersome.

Sellars grants the soloists a great deal of artistic freedom, which leads to some positively operatic performances. Magdalena Kožená, incarnating Marry Magdalene, let her hands wander all over the body of the Evangelist (Mark Padmore) during the aria “Buß und Reu,” in which she sings of how sin breaks the heart in two and her desire to anoint Jesus with her tears. Her performance in the second part, in which she accosts the chorus and laments Christ’s fate to the audience, is more moving in its directness. The Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling brings a full, pleasant tone but an unusual amount of vibrato to her arias. Sellars was blessed with what must have been an unexpected naturalist touch given that she was eight-months pregnant when they shot the DVD, which makes it quite dramatic to watch Tilling sing of a traitorous child (“es ist zur Schlange worden”) in “Blüte nur, du liebes Herz.”

The male roles are inhabited even more convincingly. The smooth baritone and dramatic restraint of Christian Gerhaher in the role of Jesus convey more spiritual depth than any action onstage. Padmore lives up to his reputation as one of today’s most seasoned Evangelists, exuding modern fervor and a sense of pathos that is at times overstated but generally effective. Thomas Quasthoff is moving in the bass parts, easily expressing personal redemption in the final aria “Mach dich, mein Herze rein.” Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu brings a handsome presence and expressive dramaticism without chewing up the scenery. His dynamic as he kneels pleadingly before the viola da gamba soloist (Hille Perl) in the aria “Geduld, wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen” is straightforward and emotionally immediate, as is his performance alongside oboist Albrecht Mayer in “Ich will bei meinem Jesus wachen.”

Sir Simon Rattle, although less known for his forays into early music, gives an elegant, authentic account of Bach’s score with the Berlin Philharmonic. While this recording will not rival that of John Elliot Gardiner or other specialists, the transparent timbre that Rattle has (albeit controversially) cultivated as music director of his orchestra serves the Passion well. It is also impressive that he single-handedly conducts the surround-sound staging and the double-choir (which includes boy singers from the Staats- und Domchors Berlin). Sellars’ concept places the Philharmonic’s world-class soloists such as Mayer and flutist Emmanuel Pahud into the spotlight they deserve, although I enjoy their playing just as much when they are sitting down.