Monday, April 19, 2010

Bach to the Future!

During our recent sojourn in England, we made a flying weekend visit to Berlin, spending lovely family time with niece Miranda and her delightful family.

As well as visiting the fabulous West Berlin Zoo, and joining the throngs of tourists in and around the Brandenberg Gate, when it happened to be bright and sunny...

...we also managed ride out a torrential hailstorm in the leakproof interior of a water taxi, crusing along the River Spree, taking in the sights, albeit as seen through a watery veil!

As a special treat, Miranda booked ahead for tickets to the Neues Museum which just re-opened last October. Standing on Berlin’s Museum Island it was originally designed by Friedrich August Stüler and built between 1841 and 1859. Extensive bombing during the Second World War left the building in ruins, with entire sections missing completely and others severely damaged. Few attempts at repair were made after the war, and the structure was left exposed to nature.

Enter the star British architect, David Chipperfield under whose direction the building has been elaborately restored and recreated. The building now provides a new home for the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection and the Museum of Prehistory and Early History, together with artifacts from the Collection of Classical Antiquities.

Respecting the historical structure in its different states of preservation, the original sequence of rooms has been restored with new building sections that blend in with what was left of the existing structure. In some areas Chipperfield used recycled handmade bricks, that complement perfectly the preserved sections. The result is an astonishing series of spaces filled with the most eye-popping artifacts imaginable...

...from ornate limestone sarcophogi... elaborate, storytelling tablets of hieroglypics...

...and room after room of seated, striding, kneeling figures.

Without doubt, though, the most stunning figure, was that icon of feminine beauty, the painted limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti, the "Great Royal Wife" of Pharoah Akhenaten. One of the most copied Egyptian works, it is believed to have been crafted in 1345 BC by the sculptor Thutmose.

Today, still, it completely captures your attention and imagination.

After hours drinking in such a wealth of riches, we couldn't imagine anything topping this museum visit. But we had not reckoned with our friend, Pamela, the Intendant at the Berlin Philharmonic, who had casually suggested that if we had nothing planned for Sunday evening, perhaps we'd like to join her to "hear the Bach," at the Philharmonic Hall.

Designed by Hans Scharoun and built on the edge of the Tiergarten between 1960-63, the hall is an asymmetric structure with a tent-like concrete roof, With seating for 2,000, the hall is pentagonal in plan, with a central stage and the audience seated on terraces rising around it.

It was only when we went with Pamela to her office backstage that we began to understand what Bach we were about to hear: his majestic, monumental St. Matthew Passion. Composed in 1727, it encompasses the musical setting of Chapters 25 and 26 of the Gospel of Matthew, with interspersed chorales and arias.

But this wasn't any ordinary performance of this most sacred of sacred works. It was an entirely new production, or "ritualization" as it was described, created by the avant-garde theatre and opera director, Peter Sellars, working with the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle.

As was normal in Bach's day, the orchestra was divided into two halves, with Rattle moving from one to the other. Likewise, the chorus was split, one behind the orchestra and one to the side. The soloists included Mark Padmore, tenor, as St. John, the Evangalist, Magdalena Kozená, mezzo-soprano, as Mary Magdalene, a very pregnant Camilla Tilling, soprano, as Mary, Christian Gerhaher, baritone, as Jesus...and Thomas Quasthoff singing the bass arias. Thomas Quasthoff, surely the most well-known "thalidomide" baby, who is now fifty years old, stands about three feet tall, with short little legs, no arms, tiny fingers, but with the most glorious, superb bass-baritone voice that is revered around the world.

Plain plywood boxes on stage served as seats and props. Everyone was dressed simply in black, the two Marys were barefoot. Soloists entered and wandered across the stage, delivering their arias. The chorus, too, moved around at times, as they took up the role of crowds in the temple, for example. All the movements were measured and steady, so they never disturbed the exquisite music. Rather, they complemented it. During the vocal/instrumental dialogues, the musicians left their places in the orchestra and joined the soloist in center stage, creating a very intimate pairing, the musicians playing brilliantly without a score in front of them.

Providing the central linchpin to the production was St. John the Evangelist, Mark Padmore. He played the role of narrator, of a Shakespearean chorus at the beginning of a new act, even, in a way, of a Greek Chorus. His voice is sublime, but his presence was equally powerful. Even when he was not singing, and, in fact, was lying flat on the floor of the stage, you could feel his focus and attention and complete involvement in the piece. He even sang from a prone position, as clearly and strongly as if he were standing upright!

He wove the other singers into the story-telling, looking up to Jesus, seated in the stage right balcony, and Pontius Pilate, seated in the stage left balcony, both of whom stood and sang their arias from their seats. Members of the chorus and a children's choir, wandered through the auditorium at times, delivering their chorales. Singers from the chorus stepped out to pick up the remaining vocal parts in the work, including St. Peter and Pilate's wife.

We were left with the overwhelming feeling of being transported, embraced and enveloped by the music, which I've not even mentioned, but which was beyond sublime, by the orchestra, probably the best in the world today, the superb singing, and by this extraordinary ritualization. I am still floating on air, a week later.

And I'm still haunted by the image of Thomas Quasthoff, cradling the plywood box representing Jesus' sepulchre in his tiny fingers, singing his final aria

Make thyself clean, my heart,
I will myself entomb Jesus
For he shall henceforth in me
For ever and ever
Take his sweet rest.
World, begone, let Jesus in!

À bientôt!

1 comment:

  1. Sounds sublime, and the pictures beautiful. We were there two years ago and it still remains a special memory for us.