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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): St Mark Passion (BWV 247)

Dominique Horwitz, speaker
amarcord; Kölner Akademie
Dir: Michael Alexander Willens

rec: March 26 - 28, 2009 (live), Dresden, Frauenkirche
Carus - 83.244 (© 2010) (73'15")

[amarcord] Dorothea Wagner, Anja Zügner, soprano; Silvia Janak, Clare Wilkinson, contralto; Martin Lattke, Wolfram Lattke, tenor; Frank Ozimerk, ; Daniel Knauft, Holger Krause bass
[KA] Annie Laflamme, Johanna Baumgärtel, transverse flute; Ina Stock, Margret Schrietter, oboe; Veit Scholz, bassoon; Pauline Nobes, Gudrun Engelhardt, Luna Oda, violin; Cosima Nieschlag, viola; Teresa Kaminska, cello; Heike J. Lindner, Holger Faust-Peters, viola da gamba; Daniel Zorzano, violone; Sören Leupold, lute; Willi Kronenberg, organ

It is generally assumed Bach composed five Passions. Only two of them have been preserved completely, the St Matthew Passion and the St John Passion. Two have disappeared, and of the St Mark Passion only the text has survived. Nevertheless there are quite a number of recordings of this work, and several attempts have been made to reconstruct this Passion. In recent times there seems to be a concensus as to which music Bach probably has used for the choruses and the arias, although Ton Koopman made his own reconstruction. For the chorales most recordings make use of Bach's own settings as they were published by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel.

But then there is still the text of the gospel, consisting of recitatives and turbae. Some have tried to compose recitatives in the style of Bach, for instance Ton Koopman. Others have used the recitatives and turbae from the St Mark Passion by Bach's contemporary Reinhard Keiser, a piece which Bach himself has performed in Leipzig.
Another option is to look for music which stylistically is in strong contrast to Bach's music. Jos van Veldhoven, in his performance in 1997, used the St Mark Passion by Marco Gioseppe Peranda (1625 - 1675). And Raumklang released a recording of a live performance from 2003 in which Bach's music is juxtaposed to the modern idiom of the German composer Volker Bräutigam.

Carus has now released a new recording which goes back to the reconstruction by Diethard Hellmann from 1964, which has been used for most earlier recordings of the St Mark Passion. In this edition the text of the gospel is to be spoken. But this version is somewhat different as it is based on a revised edition of Hellmann's reconstruction by Andreas Glöckner (published by Carus Verlag in 2001).

In Hellmann's reconstruction the opening and closing choruses are taken from the cantata Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl (BWV 198), and so are three arias: 'Mein Heiland, dich vergeß ich nicht' (No 9), 'Er kommt, er ist vorhanden' (No 17) and 'Mein Tröster ist nicht mehr bei mir' (No 24). Here he adopts the suggestions which were already made in 1873 by the editor of the first Bach Edition, Wilhelm Rust. Hellmann also accepts the suggestion of Friedrich Smend that the aria 'Falsche Welt, dein schmeichelnd Küssen' could have been taken from the opening aria of Cantata 54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde. Most modern reconstructions - for instance the one by the British scholar Simon Heighes - follow these proposals.

That leaves two arias to be reconstructed. For 'Angenehmes Mordgeschrei' Smend couldn't find the appropriate music; Simon Heighes, in his edition, has used the aria "Himmlische Vergnügsamkeit" from the cantata Ich bin in mir vergnügt (BWV 204). In the Hellmann-Glöckner edition this aria has been omitted. For the aria 'Welt und Himmel, nehmt zu Ohren' Hellmann used the aria 'Leit, O Gott, durch deine Liebe' from the cantata Herr Gott, Beherrscher aller Dinge (BWV 120a). (Heighes uses 'Himmel reisse' from the second version (1725) of the St John Passion.)

There is one interesting difference between the Hellmann-Glöckner edition of 2001 and this new recording. "In a departure from that edition, a collection of four-part chorales, barely recognized for its value as a source before 1981, was used as the basis for several of the sixteen choral [sic] movements. This collection was compiled by Johann Ludwig Dietel, a St. Thomas alumnus and pupil of Bach, who prepared it in 1735, probably specially for the Kantor of St. Thomas's. As models, Dietel essentially used the original sources from Bach's private library, probably including the autograph score of the St. Mark Passion. It is striking that in his copy, a few of the four-part Passion chorales occur in the same order as in Bach's Passion setting. For these movements at least, Dietel's copy of the score has proved to be the sole surviving secondary source of our Passion." For the other chorales the chorale collections which were published between 1784 and 1787 in collaboration with Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach have been used, like in most other recordings of the St Mark Passion.

Especially for those purchasers of this recording who don't understand German the reading of the text of the gospel by the actor Dominique Horwitz is probably a bit of a problem. I can't say I am particularly impressed by his reading as it is often too detached. It should not be acted, of course, but I don't think he has found the golden mean between doing too much and doing too little.

The choruses at the start and at the end are generally well sung. But they give the impression of being a little rushed, although the tempi are alright. It is mainly because of a lack of differentiation in articulation and dynamics that these movements don't really breathe. The ensemble amarcord - an ensemble of male voices - has been extended to nine voices, with two sopranos, altos and tenors, one baritone and two basses. I assume the idea is to perform this work with one voice per part and additional ripienists. Since Bach required ripienists in his St Matthew and St John Passion this seems plausible, but as no music of his St Mark Passion is extant, this way of performing is highly speculative. The chorales are beautifully sung, but a little short in expression as too many words pass by almost unnoticed. The caesuras after almost every line are also unnatural and make the chorales sound too static.

The members (and 'guests') of amarcord also perform the arias, and those are not really impressive. The contralto Clare Wilkinson also participated in John Butt's recording of the St Matthew Passion in which her singing was rather bland. It is not very different here, I'm afraid. She has a beautiful voice, but doesn't use it to express the text. Particularly noticeable is the lack of any dynamic shading which makes her singing static and boring. Dorothea Wagner's performance of 'Er kommt, er ist vorhanden' suffers from the same problem. She also has a nice voice, but that is about it. In addition the end of the B part is technically a bit shaky.

In contrast Anja Zügner gives the best performance of this recording in the aria 'Welt und Himmel'. The text expression is much better, and so is the articulation and the dynamic differentiation. The ensemble is also playing better here than in most other arias. In 'Falsche Welt, dein schmeichelnd Küssen', for instance, the tempo is too slow and the string chords are too feeble. Lastly, Wolfram Lattke sings the only tenor aria 'Mein Tröster ist nicht bei mir' which opens the second part. Although dynamically the performance is too flat he articulates well and there is some good text expression.

From the perspective of the reconstruction which this performance is based upon this release has some interesting features, but as the actual performance is concerned I strongly prefer the recording by Roy Goodman of the edition by Simon Heighes. In particular the arias come off much better in that recording than in this release.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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