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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): St Mark Passion (BWV 247) (version 1744)

Jasmin Hörner, soprano; Julien Freymuth, alto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; Christian Wagner, bass; Wolfgang Vater, reciter
Gutenberg-Kammerchor; Neumeyer Consort
Dir: Felix Koch

rec: March 17 - 20, 2017, Wiesbaden-Schiersten, Christophoruskirche
Christophorus - CHR 77423 (2 CDs) (© 2018) (87'04")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[NC] Julia Palac, Sophie Roth, transverse flute; Ina Stock, Wolfgang Dey, oboe; Barbara Mauch-Heinke, Hans Berg, Joosten Ellée, Kerstin Fahr, Monika Grabowska, Liuba Petrova, Christiane Schmidt, Xin Wei, violin; Hongxia Cui, Ursula Plagge-Zimmermann, viola; Ghislaine Wauters, Irmelin Heiseke, viola da gamba; Marie Deller, Christoph Lamprecht, cello; Mio Tamayama, double bass; Barbara Meditz, bassoon; Simon Linné, lute; Markus Stein, harpsichord, organ

According to the obituary (Nekrolog) which was included in Lorenz Mizler's Musicalische Bibliothek in 1754, Johann Sebastian Bach composed "five Passions, of which one is for double choir". 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.

Over the years attempts have been made to reconstruct the latter. It is generally assumed that Bach adapted music from earlier compositions. That goes especially for the choruses which open and close this work and the arias. There is consensus that Bach used the opening and closing choruses of the Trauer-Ode (BWV 198) for the former (only Ton Koopman uses different material). In most reconstructions the arias are based on the same music, although some performers offer different solutions. Moreover, the latest reconstructions have to take into consideration the textbook of this Passion for a performance on Good Friday in 1744, which was found in 2009 in St Petersburg. It includes two additional arias, for which music has to be found. For the chorales all the performers turn to a collection of chorale harmonisations by Bach himself, which were published after his death by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel.

The most problematic aspect of any reconstruction is the text of the gospel, which Bach set as recitatives. Ton Koopman decided to compose the recitatives himself. Alexander Grychtolik did the same, but his recitatives are largely adaptations of recitatives from Bach's two extant Passions. Simon Heighes, in his reconstruction, turned to the St Mark Passion attributed to Reinhard Keiser. He also uses the turbae from this work. It is assumed that in his Christmas Oratorio Bach reused choruses from his St Mark Passion, but it is impossible to find appropriate music for each of the turbae.

The recording reviewed here, based on an edition by Karl Böhmer, follows the existing reconstructions with regard to the opening and closing choruses. Moreover, three of the arias are also sung to music from the Trauer-Ode, although Böhmer, in his liner-notes, emphasizes that we can't take it for granted that Bach used them unaltered. It is quite possible that he transposed them and changed the instrumentation. However, this has to remain speculation. In one case Böhmer decided to transpose an aria himself: 'Falsche Welt, dein schmeichelnd Küssen' is based on the opening aria of the cantata Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54), which is scored for alto. Böhmer observes that the alto is forced to sing this aria "in the far too low key of E flat major, although it had been performed by Bach in Weimar at choir pitch a whole tone higher. We have selected a different solution: a version of this aria in B flat major as a tenor aria with two violas, two violas da gamba and continuo, i.e. in the instrumentation of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6. A good reason for selecting two violas at this point was Bach's drama per musica "Hercules am Scheidewege" BWV 213 in which two solo violas are also employed exactly at the point of the word 'küssen' [kiss]."

As I already mentioned, music had to be found for the two remaining arias included in the 1744 textbook. The basis for the search for music in Bach's cantatas was the assumption that he planned an aria for each soloist in both parts of the work, even though that is impossible to prove. The aria from the first part, 'Ich lasse dich, mein Jesu, nicht', had to be scored for a bass. Böhmer selected 'Es ist vollbracht' from the cantata Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem (BWV 159). "The introductory tenor aria of the second part should be followed by one aria apiece for bass, alto and soprano. I made the decision to take all three arias from the Mass in A major BWV 234 dating from around 1738, retaining the same instrumentation and vocal pitch as in the Mass. The choice was made on the strength of the final aria: 'Welt und Himmel nehmt zu Ohren, Jesus schreiet überlaut'." The latter is sung to the music of 'Qui tollis peccata mundi' (soprano). The 'Domine Deus' is used for the aria 'Will ich doch gar gerne schweigen' (bass), and 'Angenehmes Mordgeschrei' is sung to the music of 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus' (alto). The latter is a solution which Böhmer calls "purely arbitrary". "This aria with its lively dance rhythms and key of D major could also be considered as inappropriate for the cruel condemnation of Jesus, but in my text underlay, it was the word 'sanfte' [gentle] and not 'Mordgeschrei' [murder scream] which stood in the foreground."

What about the turbae and the recitatives? As far as the latter are concerned, Böhmer believes that it is impossible to 'reconstruct' them. For instance, we don't know whether Bach set the words of Jesus to a simple basso continuo accompaniment or with additional strings. Moreover, "the music that he wrote for the Evangelist, disciples and Jesus in 1731 undoubtedly displayed a further development in his recitative style which would have been equally distant from the acerbic diction of the Evangelist in the St John Passion and the epic tone of the Evangelist in the St Matthew Passion." As far as the turbae are concerned, I already mentioned that not for each of them appropriate music can be found in the Christmas Oratorio. Böhmer points out that there is much variety in Bach's composition of such choruses, which makes it impossible to reconstruct them. Therefore it was decided that the text of the gospel should be recited.

Wolfgang Vater does so in an almost business-like manner, in the way of a newsreader. That seems the right approach. It is impossible to imitate Bach's engaging recitatives in his extant Passions, and without music an attempt to perform them in a dramatic style could easily become pathetic and exaggerated. The turbae are probably the most difficult part of the readings to get used to, as these are among the most 'theatrical' parts of the story. The performances of the musical parts are generally very good. Choir and orchestra are in excellent form in the opening and closing choruses, which are performed with much expression, although the opening chorus is probably a bit too fast. In the performance of the chorales much attention is given to the text, and there are some strong dynamic accents. Among the soloists Julien Freymuth and Georg Poplutz stand out. Freymuth has a lovely voice, and delivers a passionate performance of 'Mein Heyland, dich vergess ich nicht'. Poplutz has the perfect timbre for 'Falsche Welt, dein schmeichelnd Küssen'; his treatment of the text is exemplary. Christian Wagner does not enough with the text in 'Will ich doch gar gerne schweigen'. I find his voice not very attractive, which obviously is a matter of taste. There is no lack of expression in 'Welt und Himmel nehmt zu Ohren', but the effect is damaged by the pretty wide vibrato of Jasmin Hörner.

Despite the fact that there is no lack of performances of the St Mark Passion, some of them quite good, there is certainly room for this new recording, especially because of the different solutions on offer here. Bach lovers should definitely add this performance to their collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Julien Freymuth
Jasmin Hörner
Georg Poplutz
Neumeyer Consort

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