The second unsatisfactory feature was the lugubrious over-emoting of the main participants, in particular the conductor himself, Sir Simon Rattle. It sometimes felt as if there was a contest underway as to who could show themselves most disturbed by the evening’s events. Poor suffering Jesus! Poor contrite Peter! How could such good people be subjected to such pain? How can we not feel distressed? Simon Rattle won, of course, emoting so extravagantly that at times I had to look away in embarrassment.
Sellars, who engages in a half-hour conversation with the choral director, the UK’s Simon Halsey, perhaps first called all this a ritualization when the problems that arose from any attempt to consider it a dramatization proved insurmountable. What a pity Bach didn’t stick to one voice for one character, you can imagine Sellars thinking. But if we have everyone hugging everyone else enough times, maybe the audience will get the general idea and cease to bother their heads over exactly who’s who.
This is all the more pity because the musical performances are generally so good. Thomas Quasthoff, in particular, is in very fine voice, and Magdalena Kozena and Camilla Tilling are also outstanding.
But if the world consists of people who wear suits and shake hands, and those who wear casual clothes and strings of beads (as Sellars does) and hug, then this is a meeting in which the huggers are victorious. But I wouldn’t have thought Bach would have been over-thrilled at the spectacle.
Whereas it’s true that Bach’s music is often joyful, it’s also very often introspective as well, exploring remote harmonies, complex interweaving rhythms, and much more. This austerer side of Bach is absent from this Rattle/Sellars product.
If you want to experience the more abstruse Bach, you could do far worse than listen to his Cello Suites Nos. 1-6, arranged for viola da gamba (viola played between the legs) by Paolo Pandolfo. Immediately he starts to play this quiet, introspective instrument you sense this other Bach embarking on voyages of discovery into the remoter corners of music’s deep space. It’s a fitting counterweight to this St Matthew Passion, a version that plays to the gallery in no uncertain manner.
These two Pandolfo CDs have a purity missing from the BPO discs. They’re perfect of their kind, whereas the Passion compromises Bach’s essential purity with hugs and kisses that, especially from modern Europe where Christian belief is on the wane, doesn’t carry a great deal of conviction.