People in our region, along with everyone else in the world, can see and hear a remarkable performance of Bach'ês great "St. Matthew Passion" by going online to the Berlin Philharmonic'ês Digital Concert Hall and paying around $13. This may seem an odd thing to do, but the Passion is an iconic work in the classical music canon that is rarely performed here, owing to its being very long and requiring a double orchestra and chorus.
The Berlin performance, conducted by Simon Rattle with fine soloists, is musically powerful, as one would expect. But its particular interest lies in being semi-staged in what is called a 'êritualization'ê by the Los Angeles-based Peter Sellars. The events of the Passion &mash; Christ's arrest, trial, and crucifixion — are suggested by the chorus and the soloists. Still more central to the conception is the acting out of the meditative elements in the work — the hymn-like chorales and the extensive reflection in numerous vocal solos of great power and beauty.
The Bach Passions are often given performances of great solemnity. Even in concert halls a church-like atmosphere prevails. Alternatively, and perhaps more frequently in recent years, they are given in period style, with lighter and more energetic playing and singing. This Berlin performance is different, delivering openly and strongly the individual and communal emotions in the text and the music.
Picander'ês text is remarkably subjective and intimate, with a strong emphasis on women'ês responses. The very opening is an invocation to women ('êCome, daughters, share my mourning'ê) and the soprano and mezzo soloists have lead roles with arias of extraordinary expressivity (here sung and acted with memorable conviction and depth by Camilla Tilling and Magdalena Kozena). The whole is held together by Mark Padmore who sings and acts the Evangelist with impeccable vocalism and enunciation and a deeply rooted understanding of the drama.
Another feature is the involvement of the orchestra. The critically important instrumental obligato parts in the arias are played with wonderful finesse by Philharmonic members, placed alongside the soloist they are partnering and reacting closely with him or her. They, like all the soloists and the chorus, perform from memory. The whole experience conveys a musical community of superlative quality recreating and paying tribute to one of the great masterpieces of western music.
It is best watched with a libretto, since there are no subtitles, and deploying an HDMI connection to a widescreen TV. Try it out. As I have written before, this Berlin Digital Concert Hall is a remarkable technological and musical breakthrough.