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Camilla Tilling

Camilla Tilling and Mark Padmore

Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244b) is contemplative, a study in suffering and transcendence. His St. John Passion (BWV 245) is tighter and more angular, a battlefield of action and reaction.

Matthew weeps and wonders while John, which the Berlin Philharmonic and its conductor, Simon Rattle, performed [last week] in a powerful new staging by Peter Sellars at the Philharmonie [in Berlin], presses forward. Matthew is a mass, John an opera.

But not quite. While our sense of Bach has deepened as scholars have learned more about the key role opera played in the world he inhabited, he chose never to write in the genre. It seems there was something he resisted about a form whose audience consumed art passively.

He created works, the Passions most of all, whose viewers are also, in a sense, participants, constantly questioning themselves and their perspective. For instance, the chorus enacting a mob of persecutors suddenly transforms into a huddled band of mourners.

In his 2010 staging of the St. Matthew Passion, Mr. Sellars showed a keen understanding of the status of these works as rituals rather than operas. It was a spare, haunting production that consisted physically of little more than dark clothes, simple gestures and some white blocks. The emphasis was on intense emotion and human connection, with close interaction between the instrumentalists and singers.

With the rich yet raw playing of the Philharmonic under Mr. Rattle, a moving cast of soloists and the incisive Berlin Radio Choir, the Matthew Passion was instantly a classic, a model of the convergence of music and spectacle that has become increasingly important in drawing people to orchestras. Released on DVD by the ensemble, the production will travel to New York in October for two performances at the Park Avenue Armory to open Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, the climax of a visit by the Philharmonic that also includes four concerts at Carnegie Hall.

The follow-up, Mr. Sellars’s St. John Passion, has been eagerly anticipated. Granted a luxurious amount of rehearsal and a nearly intact cast from the Matthew performances – only the great bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff is missing, and missed, having announced his retirement in 2012 – the simmering performance lives up to the high expectations.

Mr. Sellars’s touching stylization was better suited to the grief-stricken Matthew than the more stoic John, and the physical relationship he created between the orchestra and the other performers was more meaningful in that earlier production. But in John, he still created potent effects, pushing his soloists toward focused melancholy. He made the Berlin Radio Choir sprawl on the stage, crawl across it as a mass and, at one point, race to the corners of the Philharmonie to create a chilling sense of sonic immersion.

Visually there is even less to Mr. Sellars’s St. John Passion than his Matthew. The choral and instrumental forces of John are smaller, so the teeming feeling of the previous production is poignantly depleted. In lieu of the white blocks, there is just a hanging spotlight hovering a few feet above the center of the stage and, sometimes, a chair. The lighting changes starkly with each abrupt shift of mood.

Like the St. Matthew Passion, John tells the story of the end of Jesus’s life by an alternation of three elements: a dramatization in recitative of the biblical text, hymn-like chorales and reflective arias. But Mr. Sellars focuses intently in this John on the first of these, making truly central the three singers who voice Jesus, Peter/Pilate and, especially, the narrating Evangelist.

The Philharmonic was lucky to have once more the tenor Mark Padmore, one of the great Evangelists of our time, and superb here. A wandering witness to terrible events he helplessly recalls, he is a cousin of the shellshocked Captain Vere he portrayed in Britten’s Billy Budd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music a few weeks ago.

It seems reductive to pick out specific moments, like the sensitivity with which he described Peter warming himself, the majestic way he unfurled the word “weinete” (“wept”) or his soaring line after Jesus declares Pilate powerless. From his first word – “Jesus,” a microcosm of caring – Mr. Padmore’s performance was an integrated, unforgettable vocal and dramatic whole.

The baritone Roderick Williams’s voice rang out commandingly beneath a blindfold as Jesus, but it was a questionable choice to have him collapse at the chorus’s cries of “kreuzige” (“crucify”). The Jesus of the St. John Passion is not the suffering martyr of Matthew but calm and collected, a winner. We may identify less today with his confident reserve, but the contrast of that coolness with the others’ hysteria and pain gives the work meaning.

Contemporary audiences may feel more of a connection to the tormented Pilate, whom the thoughtful baritone Christian Gerhaher and Mr. Sellars have rendered as a well-meaning, weak-willed bourgeois functionary. Dressed in a dark suit and a white shirt open at the neck, he may be a lawyer or banker whose power derives from a structure that prevents him from doing good. His question to Jesus – “was ist Wahrheit?” (“what is truth?”) – was here a stunned expression of existential emptiness.

The soloists in the arias were less devastating. Magdalena Kožená’s soft-grained mezzo-soprano suited the earth-mother role she seemed to embody, with her thickly woven red gown and very obvious pregnancy. The soprano Camilla Tilling sounded committed, light and creamy, only turning tense at the very top of the voice. The only disappointment was the tenor Topi Lehtipuu, colorless and strained in his important arias.

Mr. Rattle conducted a performance that was lush yet energetic from the first downbeat, with warm balance between the strings and the winds. The sharp edge of the violins faced the ominous buzz of the bassoon as the chorus denied it had the ability to put Jesus to death, and the flute soloists were velvety in the aria Ich folge dir. The continuo players, who accompanied the recitatives, were dazzlingly unified with the singers in moments like Jesus’s declaration that his kingdom does not belong to this world.

The chorus, led by Simon Halsey, was particularly affecting in slower music, when the singers came together in great waves. Other passages could have been less polite: the cries of “kreuzige” even more terrifying and the horrifyingly jovial account of rolling dice for the distribution of Jesus’s tunic more grotesque.

But the work’s final sequence – a long, somber chorus followed by a shining hymn – left me full of the feeling that John Eliot Gardiner, in his recent study Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, writes is one thing we have when the St. John Passion is over: a pained, uneasy gratitude.

Zachary WoolfeThe New York Times