Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Beautiful, striking and thought-provoking

One of the highlights of my Christmas last year was the moving Bach Christmas Oratorio choreographed by John Neumeier and danced by Hamburg Ballett. That Blu-ray disc will be lined up with all our other favourites in 2016: Father Christmas, A Wish for Wings that Work, Desk Set and A Muppet Christmas Carol. This Blu-ray disc of the St. Matthew Passion by the same dancers, instrumentalists and singers has all the advantages of the previous disc, with an additional major plus. This music is even greater than the cantatas that make up the Christmas Oratorio. It's more dramatic - in John Elliot Gardiner's words, "Bach's was essentially dramatic music: music intended to appeal to - even occasionally assault - the senses of his listeners." Thus the Passion lends itself more naturally to interpretation through dance. This will give you an idea of the variety of effects Neumeier comes up with to match (again quoting Gardiner) Bach's "stark new juxtapositions of texture and sonority."

As beautiful and striking and thought-provoking as this is - and it's all of those things at a consistently high level for 3-1/2 hours - I wonder if this is somehow less than what Peter Sellars and Simon Rattle achieved in their ground-breaking 2010 production in Berlin. This small bit of that performance perhaps gives you an idea of a more personal, more human, more intimate Bach.

As good as the orchestra and choirs conducted by Gunter Jena in the Hamburg Ballett recording are - for the record they're the St.-Michaelis-Orchester und -Chor, Knabenchor Hannover and Knabenchor St. Michaelis - they're not in the same league as Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, Rundfunkchor Berlin, and a lineup of star soloists headlined by Mark Padmore as the Evangelist. But a greater difference is that we are necessarily a passive audience for a ballet - these fit good-looking young people are a different species from the people sitting in the seats at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, not to mention those of us on the couch at home. But when Peter Sellars puts the camera - i.e. the audience - amongst the singers and instrumentalists, he involves us more fully in the action. When the choir are active participants in the ebb and flow of that performance, we are closer as well, since choir members are our proxies. Indeed, the congregation would have sung along with the Chorales they knew, like at a midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Again, Gardiner provides insight:
Bach took his cue from Luther, who, knowing from direct experience what it was like to be persecuted, insisted that Christ's Passion 'should not be acted out in words or appearances, but in one's own life'. That is exactly what Bach does - by addressing us directly and very personally, by finding new ways to draw us in and towards acting it out in our own lives: we become participants in the re-enactment of a story which, however familiar, is told in ways calculated to bring us up short, to jolt us out of our complacency, while throwing us a lifeline of remorse, faith and, ultimately, a path to salvation. *
Now I know that Sellars and Rattle touch me more directly in their production than Neumeier and Jena do in theirs, but this is very much a personal view. I'm still very enthusiastic about this version after my first run-through, and I expect I'll find it resonating with me even more when I watch again.

* John Elliott Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, p. 429.

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