Johannes-Passion, Easter Festival, Baden-Baden, Germany – review

It is not possible to walk down the street in Baden-Baden over Easter without running into members of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Ever wondered what the players look like naked? You might well find out in one of the city’s “textile-free” thermal baths; though bear in mind that the discovery will be mutual.

In their second year as Baden-Baden’s resident Easter orchestra, the Berliners have achieved what they failed to do over four-and-a-half decades in Salzburg: become a part of the place.

Not that a lack of potential nude encounters in any way diminished the orchestra’s impact in its erstwhile Austrian home. But the rigid subscription series, the conservative audience base, and the difficulty of change were all factors – as the players tell it – in their decision to leave Salzburg and move north.

With its churches, spa, historic theatre and baths, Baden-Baden offers a multitude of potential venues for smaller concerts. And the Berlin orchestra has hurled itself at the opportunity, lining up a busy 10 days of chamber music, recitals, lectures, community events and education projects to accompany the prestigious large-scale performances.

All of this goes a long way to compensate for the disappointment of this year’s vacuous festival opera production. Accessible venues, creative programmes and affordable prices make the orchestra real in a way that no opera can, and offer a platform for the surprisingly large number of established chamber music formations that the institution has spawned.

Equally humanising is this year’s production of Bach’s Johannes-Passion, staged by Peter Sellars with the superlative Rundfunkchor Berlin. Two years ago, Sellars and Rattle teamed up for the longer, larger Matthiaspassion. They struck on something stark and new, a ceremonial re-telling that brought together singers and instrumentalists in a sparse, powerful ritual.

For their new Johannes-Passion, the two men have returned to the idea of symbolic gesture and collective movement. Once again, all the performers are clothed in black, and the orchestra is augmented by specialist continuo players. The compelling humanity of the evening owes much to Mark Padmore’s formidable performance as the Evangelist, a narrator driven by compassion, deeply involved in the action, consummately communicative.

All of the soloists are strong, but Christian Gerhaher makes one of the most striking impressions, combining the ambivalent roles of Pilatus and Petrus in a crushing portrait of evasion and remorse. Sellars tells the Passion story as a narrative for every age, of suffering, manipulation, alienation, empathy and loss. He and Rattle perform a water-into-wine miracle of pure sincerity from the heart of a corrupt and cynical world.

It is hard to imagine a more complete contrast to the calculated inanity of Manon Lescaut. It feels disconcertingly like redemption.

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