Passion, pain paired in Berlin

On April 4, for example, Kurt Nagano conducted the Deutsche Sinfonie
Orchester in Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew in the now 40-year-old Philharmonie,
widely cherished as the world’s most perfect concert hall.

Earlier on that day the press was invited to preview an exhibition in the Hamburger Bahnhof, one
of the many sites of Berlin’s National Gallery. Title — and subject — of the show, a
collaboration with the Charité’ the Berlin hospital that dates from the 18th century — is
“Schmerz/Pain,” the phenomenon that for centuries has perplexed doctors — and inspired

For the visitor the juxtaposition of “Schmerz” and Bach’s Passion enriched the Easter week with
provocation and profundity, for the opening section of the exhibition is focused on Christ’s
Crucifixion, the primary experience of pain so central to Christian culture. Paintings on display
reach from an anonymous 1470 work to Francis Bacon’s 1965 “Crucifixion” triptych. And the
interest that modern medicine has taken in this chapter of intense suffering is documented
through a multitude of references, including the 1948 experiment of Frederick T. Zugibe, an
American forensic specialist who suspended his assistant from a cross to measure the forces
involved. Also on display is a 1700 study by Martin von Cochen, who assembled a catalog of
5475 wounds inflicted on Christ’s body, plus 110 blows to his face.

The greater issue within the exhibition is the degree to which the torture of Christ has tempered
the approach to pain within Western culture. Also of concern is the consequent emphasis upon
compassion for this miraculous man-become-God. To the musical-minded, however, of central
interest is a small room focused on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Du”rer’s woodcut series on the
Crucifixion hang on the walls. A page of the Passion manuscript from the German State Library
is on display, and at four locations open scores and headsets pinpoint sections of the work that
concentrate on Christ’s physical suffering. (In an adjacent room Nathalie Djurberg’s cartoon
video of a woman whipping a man offsets the solemnity of Bach. The caption reads: “Just
because you are suffering doesn’t make you Jesus.”)

A unique — even if unintended — prologue to the St. Matthew Passion, “Schmerz” left the
listener doubly receptive to Nagano’s carefully understated interpretation of the work. Indeed,
although performed on modern instruments (except for the group of period instruments that
accompanied arias), the performance underscored the wide influence that the early-music
movement has had on performances of Bach. Nagano often stood near motionless during arias
and was otherwise content to involve himself only in choruses and chorales, the latter sung with
winning innocence by the Windsbach Boys Choir.

Yet his reserve in no way reduced the drama of the score that is the closest Bach came to writing
an opera. Tenor Martin Petzold brought “you-are-there” urgency to the Evangelist, suggesting
that he is more an on-the-scene reporter than a mere narrator. And Dietrich Henschel, elsewhere
a seductive Giovanni and as a Lieder artist often called the successor to Dietrich
Fischer-Dieskau, was a monumental Christ.

Nagano’s St. Matthew was one of a plethora of Berlin Bach performances during the Easter
season, a richness that emphasizes the Bach tradition in the city that goes back to Felix
Mendelssohn’s reintroduction of the then largely forgotten work in 1829, 102 years after its
premiere in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche. This “come-back,” which led one critic to place Bach in the
company of Shakespeare, amazed even Eduard Devrient, the bass who sang Christ in the 1829
performance. During rehearsals, however, he had questioned just what this 20-year-old “Jew
boy” was up to with this daring endeavor.

Of course, Mendelssohn — his father had converted to Christianity — knew great music when
he saw it. At 14 he had asked for a copy of the St. Matthew score for Christmas and a year later
he, who on a visit to Weimar had played from the “Well-Tempered Clavier” for the aged Goethe,
and sister Fanny joined the Singakadamie, which sang Bach — including the St. John Passion —
for its own pleasure, but never in public. (Mendelssohn’s grandmother Sara Levi was once a
favorite student of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.)

Bach — as Nagano made clear with this Passion week performance that packed the
Philharmonie — remains a way of life in Berlin. “Schmerz” is on display through August 5. The
Hamburger Bahnhof, Invalidenstrasse 50-51, is a short walk from the Hauptbahnhof, Berlin’s
spectacular new central railway station.

Wes Blomster

image_description=Holy Apostle Matthew