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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): St Mark Passion (BWV 247) (ed. A. Grychtolik/J. Savall)

Marta Mathéu, soprano; Raffaele Pe, alto; David Szigetvári, Reinoud Van Mechelen, tenor; Konstantin Wolff, bass
Cor Infantil Amics de la Unió; La Capella Reial de Catalunya; Le Concert des Nations
Dir: Jordi Savall

rec: March 26, 2018 (live), Versailles, Chapelle Royal
Alia Vox - AVSA9931 (2 CDs) (© 2019) (1.50'32")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I/S/C; lyrics - translations: E/F/I/S/C
Cover & track-list

Johann Sebastian Bach almost certainly performed a Passion every year. He didn't necessarily perform music from his own pen. At least two performances of the St Mark Passion, usually attributed to Reinhard Keiser, are documented for 1726 and 1748. The fact that Bach's only two extant Passions, the St Matthew Passion and the St John Passion, exist in various versions also points in the direction of an annual Passion performance. According to the obituary (Nekrolog) which was included in Lorenz Mizler's Musicalische Bibliothek in 1754, Bach composed "five Passions, of which one is for double chorus". The latter certainly refers to the St Matthew Passion. Only two other Passions are known: the extant St John Passion and the St Mark Passion of which only the text has survived.

It is hard to accept that a large-scale work by a master like Bach has disappeared. No wonder that over the years attempts have been made to more or less reconstruct the St Mark Passion. They are based on the assumption that Bach used pre-existing music for the arias, choruses and chorales, although not in every case there is unanimity as for which music Bach may have used. The main problems are the recitatives; here Bach undoubtedly wrote new music. Some years ago the German keyboard player and musicologist Alexander Grychtolik presented his own edition of the St Mark Passion. For the arias and choruses he made sometimes different choices than in previous editions, and the recitatives are largely taken from the two extant Passions, and adapted to a different text. In 2015 Rondeau released a recording of his edition. Although some of his solutions are plausible, on the whole I was not convinced by his approach, and that goes especially for the choruses and the recitatives. In the former we hear sometimes unusual or even wrong word accents (for instance "Weissage uns", 29b). As far as the recitatives are concerned, the secco recitatives of the Evangelist are the lesser problem. Far more problematic are the accompanied recitatives in the part of Jesus, which are sometimes rather unnatural.

The production under review here is the recording of a live performance in the Chapelle Royale in Versailles, under the direction of Jordi Savall, who follows Grychtolik's edition, with some adaptations of his own. Unfortunately it has many shortcomings. Those may be partly due to the fact that this is a live recording, but I doubt whether a studio production would have been substantially better. One of the main problems is that none of the singers, except Konstantin Wolff, is a German speaker, and that shows. Especially David Szigetvári in the part of the Evangelist is very disappointing. His German pronunciation leaves something to be desired, but it is also rather unidiomatic. He does not act as a storyteller: too often all the words and syllables get the same weight. His performance is unrhetorical and hardly declamatory, and also not very engaging. Wolff may be a German speaker, but his performance of the part of Jesus mostly misses the point. It is rather pathetic and over the top, almost in the manner of a 19th-century opera. Reinoud Van Mechelen is the best of the soloists, and I would have preferred him in the role of the Evangelist. He sings his arias well, but he seems to feel uncomfortable in 'Ich lasse dich, mein Jesus, nicht', which is one of the lesser convincing aria reconstructions. His pronunciation is rather good, as is Marta Mathéu's; she sings her arias well, but is pretty horrible in the short recitatives of the Maid. Raffaele Pe delivers a pretty good performance of 'Mein Heiland, dich vergeß ich nicht', although the lower notes are too weak. 'Falsche Welt, dein schmeichelnd Küssen' comes off less well. The smaller roles are performed by Spanish singers, and these are, without exception, disappointing.

The choir comprises sixteen children's voices (soprano and alto), four tenors and four basses. There is little wrong with their singing as such, but the performances of the tutti sections - choruses and chorales - are not very good. There is a lack of transparency and of ensemble; despite the difference in numbers, in some tutti sections the lower voices stand out. The chorales are generally sung rather well, but there is hardly any text expression. The slowing down at the last line of every chorale and the long-held chords at the end are rather stereotypical. The orchestra is fine, but sometimes the playing of the strings is too aggressive, such as in the tenor aria I already mentioned.

If this is not bad enough, the booklet includes a number of printing errors. Moreover, there are many differences between the text printed in the booklet and the text sung during the performance. The latter is in accordance with the text in the performance directed by Tischbein. Whether this is the result of changes in the text made by Grychtolik is for me impossible to check.

All in all, I can't see any reason to recommend this recording.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Marta Mathéu
Reinoud Van Mechelen
Raffaele Pe
David Szigetvári
Konstantin Wolff
La Capella Reial de Catalunya & Le Concert des Nations

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