Bach with bite

Music - Richard Sennett on Peter Sellar's staging of two cantatas

"Bach is the least abstract composer who ever lived - he's the most pictorial, the most utterly human." And that is why, Peter Sellars says, he has started staging Bach's music. Sellars is himself famously "now". The director has set CosI fan tutte in a diner; he has made Don Giovanni snort coke. These aren't stunts: Sellars scrupulously respects the music he transports to the modern world, and his Mozart works brilliantly. But does Bach need him?

Classical music in general certainly does. For the past half-century, it has faced the danger of becoming a museum art. In the past, many people who went to concerts played music at home; that icon of respectability, the piano in the parlour, transformed seething youth and stern parents into collaborators. In more religious times, church music did what tedious sermons could not: make the presence of God palpable. Just because such intimate connections to music are vanishing, music performed in concert halls has an ever more formal and distant relationship to its listeners.

Performers can try to take off that chill in many ways. We can, for instance, talk to an audience about what they are about to hear. Talking across the footlights breaks a spell first cast in the early 19th century, when concert audiences were plunged into darkness, admonished to utter silence; musicians on stage, dressed to the nines, appeared as emissaries of another world. Almost any kind of talk, I have found, will do; what audiences want is not an explanation, but a connection.

Sellars talks, and he talks well; during a recent staging of two Bach cantatas at the Barbican in London, he prefaced each with a moving description of the music. Moreover, rather than speak with the voice of authority, he conveys that he is searching, experimenting with different ways to bring the music nearer to his listeners, aiming to take the museum-chill off the music. His own path lies in making you see as well as hear, and in a peculiar combination, by making high-art sound cohabit with the visual dreck of everyday life, its used cars, fast-food diners and worn clothes. "Cohabit" is the operative word: he popularises but he does not dumb down.

The two Bach cantatas he chose for the Barbican event are a different kind of experiment, using just about the most demanding music he could have tackled. One of them depicts a person on the point of suicide, the other on the point of death. Bach's music makes these subjects intense, taut, compelling; there seems at first little room and little need to add anything else.

Bach's work on suicide, "My heart swims in blood" (Cantata 199, written c1713), was itself an experiment, one of the young Bach's early attempts to write a solo-based cantata. To create coherence, he filled out the orchestral parts so that they became individual presences addressing and responding to the soprano singer. The cantata on death is a piece written 14 years later (though it has an earlier catalogue number, as Cantata 82), and shows how far Bach had come in his musical experiment: in its form, the music more resembles a modern concerto; the voice-writing is more explicitly operatic.

In the earlier cantata, we are told a straight-forward story, a person so depressed that she is rescued from suicide only at the last moment by awareness of God. In the later cantata, we are presented with a dramatic irony set forth in the title. In German, it is "Ich habe genug", and the sense can be rendered in English as "I've had enough of life" or "My life is fulfilled with the coming of death and union with Christ". Bach's text intends weariness and joyful expectation in equal measure; his music makes both happen unexpectedly, with sudden ruptures and shifts of mood.

Sellars's experiment in the early cantata goes exactly against Bach's own. On a raised platform, the soprano soloist acts out the gestures of despair without any visual connection to the sounds from the small orchestra beseeching, appealing, and finally speaking to her. Although I know it seems odd to say it, Sellars's dramatic nerve fails him - he has rigidly divorced stage action from musical interaction, and the drama we are seeing is less than the drama we are hearing.

The soprano is charged with embodying despair, aided only by the prop of a long scarf. She flails about, twisting the scarf around her body, she falls prone, then suddenly shoots up. Simply as a representation of depression, this is all wrong; depression weighs the body down so that it seems too heavy to move; despair immobilises rather than energises. Just that unbearable heaviness is what Bach makes into sound in the seventh section of the cantata: "I lie down in these wounds." Sellars shows us hysteria rather than depression, and its conclusion would be exhaustion, not suicide.

In "Ich habe genug", Sellars seemed to me a better experimenter, precisely by intruding more of his own dramatic craft. Now there is a setting: on the stage podium appears a bare light attached to cable flex; a silent man dressed in black sometimes holds the light, sometimes the singer.

The stage business now becomes the way the soprano singer stares into this light, pushes it away and, ultimately, folds it into herself. The dark figure moves slowly but unpredictably around her, until she folds herself tightly into him as well.

Now we are seeing on stage something that relates both to Bach's music and to the text. Musically, the dying woman includes the conductor in her stage gestures. Particularly in the pregnant silences that mark this piece, we sense her body as a presence in the music. Sellars stage-smarts appear in the use the dying woman makes of the light.

It could be unintentionally comic - light at the end of the tunnel - but he is much too good a director simply to show a symbol on stage. We don't know what is going to happen to the light, where and how it will move, and so it becomes like a third actor, more mysterious than the man in black. This nervous, jumpy play suits both text and music, and at least made me more attuned to the fragmentation that marks the music, particularly in the ways the oboe shadows the singing voice.

So the experiment can work in principle, but in practice Sellars is only part of the performance. No stagecraft was going to redeem the flaccid players conducted by Craig Smith at the Barbican, listlessly scraping and tooting away. More to the point was the performance by the soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. It was astounding, a marvel. Her phrasing and breath control, even when flat on her back, were perfect; so was her projection of the words. Most singers today know how to shout, but she knows something much rarer: how to whisper. And just because she was so compelling, so ravishing a singer, I found myself frequently no longer looking at the stage.

That is one paradoxical part of the Sellars problem. He works globally, mostly with the great musicians he deserves. But occasionally, as on this night, their musical strengths make his dramatic work seem extraneous. The religious impulse behind Bach's music is also part of his problem.

Bach's religious cantatas came to constitute an immense musical edifice, five yearly cycles of music for each Sunday and sacred event of the year; most of these were composed in the first seven or eight years of his tenure as cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig, beginning in 1723 - you could listen to all of them in the glorious recordings that John Eliot Gardiner is now making in his cantata project.

Within this huge edifice, the solo cantatas chosen by Sellars occupy a special religious place. They signpost Bach's effort to develop the voice of conscience - a musical/religious language akin to the interior monologue in the theatre, but not quite. The person meant to overhear this musical voice of conscience is God, not you the audience; the suicide and the woman at death's door are singing for their souls.

Bach's music overcomes the alien realm of the concert hall precisely by suspending time and place, forcing us inward, ever more identifying with the voice of conscience. Visual stimulation and connection of the sort Sellars creates is the mistake of a secular mind; it mistakes drama of the senses for drama of the soul.

That is why the selection of these particular pieces seems to me perverse. I wished he had chosen other religious cantatas in which the relation of the music to the congregation/audience is meant to be direct, or that he had chosen the Masses, which Bach conceived as something like Greek dramas for Christians.

In any event, Sellars's experiment should go on. His belief in the great music he has inherited is sincere, his imagination is free and rich. The problem he faces is immense: how those for whom the gods have fled can connect to a time when the Devil and the Redeemer were real presences.

Richard Sennett is a musician and writer working in London