At the Armory and Carnegie Hall, the Berlin Philharmonic’s Retro Reinvention

The Berlin Philharmonic at the Park Avenue Armory. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Every musician returning to a familiar masterwork claims fresh insight — details that suddenly reveal themselves, a new understanding buried in the score’s infinite riches. Great art is always changing, we’re told, which is what makes it great. This is often hogwash. Symphonic music’s most loyal audiences rely on the fact that most of it sounds mostly the same most of the time. Somehow, though, the Berlin Philharmonic made Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, that old collection of cumbersome glories, feel like a stunningly contemporary drama.

The astonishment began before the first note had sounded. The director Peter Sellars had tailored his staging for the Berliner Philharmonie, so the only way to import the spectacle was to bring the hall along, too. In the Park Avenue Armory, someone had assembled immense quantities of scaffolding into a nearly full-scale mock-up of the orchestra’s famous home. Seating encircled the stage in terraces so singers could pivot and always have someone to sing to, and the chorus could scatter, sprinting up the stepped aisles and bringing the music to the people. It was a movie-set version of an auditorium, but it worked like the real thing — almost. Sound tends to drift into the Drill Hall’s rafters, so principal singers were judiciously amplified, just enough to irritate a purist, not nearly so much that it blared like a Broadway show.

Sellars is always in search of relevance and revelation, which can yield some intensely annoying work. Here, though, he forged hours of almost unbroken intensity. As the pre-performance hubbub dimmed, audience members started to notice a lean man slumped on the stage — the tenor Mark Padmore, who, as the Evangelist, delivered the thankless connective bits, all the thus-spake-Jesus and then-the-high-priest-said-unto-him recitative. But Sellars also had him double as the physical embodiment of Jesus, so that the narrator stumbled and died along with his protagonist. Padmore needed no stage business to help him shape an interpretation. With a voice as limpid as an alpine lake, elegant diction, and a refusal to wax sentimental, he could break hearts on a Penn Station platform at rush hour. But maybe all the contortions that Sellars subjected him to gave Padmore’s Bach an extra drop of exquisite suffering.

An idealistic young man, earnest and self-aggrandizing in the way of idealistic young men, is arrested and tortured by a military occupation. The governor, more attuned to politics than justice and fully aware that the prisoner has done nothing, uses his gruesome execution to placate, or perhaps intimidate, a confused mob. That’s one way Sellars framed Jesus’ last days, but he also savored the story’s human complexities: the tragic power of friendship, the banality of cynicism, the desperation of loss, the recognition of impending failure. Sellars turned ritual into psychodrama, carrying the score into wild emotional terrain. The singers consoled, embraced, massaged, and pleaded with one another. In “Buss und Reu” (“Repentance and Regret”), a tiny ensemble — mezzo soprano, flute, and two oboes — clustered around the prone evangelist, weaving a gossamer canopy of counterpoint. Even solo lamentations became pleas for connection. “Geduld!” (“Patience”) the tenor Topi Lehtipuu demanded, kneeling before a viola da gamba player. He was no longer reminding himself to endure, but pouring out his thoughts on shame and scorn to an impassive listener. Every aria became a therapy session.

These theatrical conceits percolated into the music-making in mysterious ways. Mezzo soprano Magdalena Kožená might have sung “Erbarme Dich” (“Have Mercy”) with as much feeling if she had been facing forward in a concert gown. Concertmaster Daniel Stabrawa would likely have played along with the same lilting delicacy if he had stayed at his usual post. But Sellars brought them into such an intimate huddle that the violin’s intro became the wordless expression of the singer’s thoughts. Sellars didn’t just manipulate the audience; he also forced the performers to confront familiar music in dazzlingly uncomfortable ways.

To manage all those migrating performers, Rattle moved around, too, now standing in front of one ensemble, now drifting over to another or turning to face the house and conduct a far-flung choir. Then, in the finale, “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder” (“We sit down in tears”), the whole cast collapsed in on the center, thronging the conductor and Jesus’ dead body. By the end, Rattle’s lambswool white hair bobbed above the solemn crowd as Bach’s tender music dissipated into the darkness, replaced by a long silence before the storm of cathartic applause.

With such elaborate productions and media resources (the St. Matthew Passion and another Sellars extravaganza, the St. John Passion, are both available on DVD), Rattle’s Berlin Philharmonic is defining what the 21st-century orchestra should be. But the ensemble also cultivates its links to the past. It can still pull out that velvety von Karajan sound, or draw on its days with Richard Strauss; it still has a shamefully retrograde smattering of female players. When the orchestra opened Carnegie Hall’s season with a rousing gala featuring Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (expertly taxidermied by Anne-Sofie Mutter), it felt like an old-time band. A few days later, it tore through Schumann’s last two symphonies with the amazement of a child who has just discovered the past.

Rattle was not uniformly inspired at Carnegie Hall. Especially in the Third Symphony, he trotted perfunctorily through middling passages on his way to the good stuff. But when he got to his destination, colors suddenly glowed, rhythms tightened, and the energy surged. In Schumann’s resplendent evocation of Cologne Cathedral, I heard not just the orchestra’s brass and strings, but also iron and stone, the resonant vaults and the organ tones vibrating in the clammy air.

Conductors have tended not to trust Schumann as a symphonist, and performances often justify that suspicion. I’ve been making my way through vintage performances of the Fourth Symphony, and even some of the best get syrupy, dense, and slow. In a celebrated and enlightening video of a rehearsal, Herbert von Karajan asks the orchestra to exhale the great opening chord and the wavelike scales of the first few measures in a single, slow breath. Bernstein summons immense Wagnerian tides, detonating volcanic explosions in the deep. John Eliot Gardiner drags the piece in the opposite direction, sandblasting away the goop and producing an astringent interpretation, all brittle staccatos and persnickety precision.

Having processed these extremes, Rattle produced a performance of rare buoyancy. He returned to Schumann’s original 1841 version, forgot about its supposed imperfections, and gave it a startling lightness and depth. There’s a moment in the first movement where a bass trombone rises slowly, majestically, out of the boiling strings. Rattle kept the passage quiet and contained, and full of postponed gratification, secure in the knowledge that when it comes to history’s splendors, there are always plenty of them ahead.

The Berlin Philharmonic’s Retro Reinvention