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Johann Georg KÜNSTEL (1645 - 1695): St Mark Passion

Polyharmonique (Alexander Schneider); L'arpa festante (Christoph Hesse)

rec: May 15 - 18, 2018, Markt Nordheim, Schloss Seehaus (chapel)
Christophorus - CHR 77435 (© 2019) (2.18'17")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

[Polyharmonique] Magdalena Harer, Joowon Chung, soprano; Piotr Olech, Alexander Schneider, alto; Hans Jörg Mammel, Johannes Gaubitz, Sören Richter, tenor; Felix Rumpf, Torsten Voigt, baritone; Philipp J. Kaven, Cornelius Uhle, bass
[L'arpa festante] Christoph Hesse, Angelika Balzer, violin; Max Bock, Ursula Plagge-Zimmermann, viola; Daniela Wartenberg, cello; Haralt Mertens, violone; Michael Dücker, lute; Christoph Anselm Noll, harpsichord, organ

It does not happen every year that a substantial work is discovered. The recording under review here is the result of such a discovery. In this case, not only the composition is new to the catalogue, the composer is also a completely unknown quantity, who is not even mentioned in the main music encyclopedias, such as New Grove, and no article in Wikipedia is devoted to him.

The information about his life and career is sparing, and comes partly from Johann Gottfried Walther, who included him in his Musicalisches Lexicon of 1732. This fact in itself indicates that he was a composer of some repute. It seems that he worked for most of his life in Ansbach and Coburg, both in Bavaria. His name is first mentioned in 1667 in the funeral oration for his mother-in-law. Here he is called an organist and schoolmaster. In 1669 at the latest he entered the service of Margrave Johann Friedrich at Ansbach. There he worked as organist and for some time as Hofkapellmeister. In 1684 he moved to Coburg, where he first worked as organist and from 1691 onwards as Hofkapellmeister in the service of the art-loving Duke Albrecht III. He remained in Coburg until his death, in 1694 (according to Julian Franke in his liner-notes) or 1695 (according to the track-list).

Only a few sacred works from his pen have been preserved, none of them as autographs. His major work is undoubtedly his St Mark Passion, which was first performed in Coburg and revived several times since, even after Künstel's death. The choice of the gospel after St Mark is remarkable, as most German Passions of the late 17th and early 18th centuries are based on those after St Matthew and St John. This Passion is one of the first German oratorio Passions in history. In previous times the text of a Gospel was mostly set without any additional free poetic text. In this work we find a number of arias and duets as well as a trio, and choruses and chorales. The author of these texts is not known.

The St Mark Passion is divided into six sections. The first four were performed on Maundy Thursday morning and afternoon respectively, separated by a sermon. The sections 5 and 6 were performed at Good Friday, again with a sermon in between. The scoring is for four voices and an instrumental ensemble of two violins, two violas and basso continuo. The fact that this work includes a duet for two sopranos indicates that the solo voices were joined by ripienists.

The Passion opens with a sinfonia. It is followed by a chorus which is a kind of reflection on the meaning of Jesus's Passion: "Human senses can ever imagine what Jesus has done by sacrificing his life". Then two voices sing the heading (Initium): "Listen to the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ after St Mark". The role of the Evangelist is, as was customary, given to a tenor. Although his part is formally a recitative, it has the character of ariosi. Although rooting in the monodic style of the early 17th century, these recitatives are comparable to those in Italian opera from Cavalli onwards. Sometimes words or phrases are repeated, and here and there the text is illustrated through musical figures, for instance when the Evangelist mentions that the soldiers at the Cross gamble for Jesus's clothes. The part of Jesus is scored for a bass; his contributions are called accompagnato or arioso, but they are not fundamentally different from those of the Evangelist, except that, whereas the latter is supported by the basso continuo, the words of Jesus are surrounded by a halo of strings, just as in Bach's St Matthew Passion.

The arias, duets and trio are strophic. Most of them comprise two stanzas, some consist of three or only one. They are not allocated to specific characters, as was to be the case in the Passion oratorios of the next century. They are often a kind of comments on what is going on. For instance, when Judas greets Jesus with a kiss, the alto sings: "Damned kiss that reveals Judas's scheme, and stabs you, my Lord, in his heart!" But others are rather the personal reaction of the faithful, for instance when Jesus is called "my bridegroom" and is asked for salvation, or the trio 'Komm, Seele, komm' addresses the soul: "Come, my soul, come, see your Saviour going, you have never seen such pain".

Chorales play an important role in this Passion. Some of them are very well-known, such as O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß and Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen, but others may be hardly familiar to most listeners. Two chorales, So gehstu nun, mein Jesu, hin and Das Leben für uns in den Tod gegeben, are by Kaspar Friedrich Nachtendörfer and Melchior Bischoff respectively, who were both active as ministers in Coburg.

One most remarkable aspect needs to be mentioned: the last episode of the sixth section opens with the motet Ecce quomodo moritur (See, how the righteous dies) by Jacobus Gallus (1550-1591). This motet has gained some popularity in recent times, and is sometimes performed at the end of Bach's St Matthew Passion. The liner-notes mention that this motet is "integrated", which suggests that it was included by Künstel himself. However, we can't be entirely sure, as long as the score is not published. There are other aspects of this performance, where I wondered to what extent they are prescribed by the composer or rather the result of decisions taken by the performers. One of them is that in a number of chorales, some lines are sung by a soloist and others by the tutti. The same goes for the chorale O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid, which closes this Passion and some of whose stanzas are allocated to a solo voice.

There is every reason to hope for a printed edition of Künstel's St Mark Passion. In my view, this is a major discovery, not only for historical reasons, but also because it is a marvellous work. As it is quite different from other Passions I know, including pieces from the 17th century, I needed some time to get used to it. But in the end I was very impressed. It should be part of the repertoire for Passiontime, especially as it is so different from what it mostly performed, but mainly because of its expressive qualities.

The recording of the two ensembles show these qualities to full extent. Hans Jörg Mammel is an outstanding and engaging Evangelist, who communicates every nuance in the text. Felix Rumpf has probably not the most attractive voice, as far as I am concerned, but he sings the part of Jesus with the appropriate authority and sensitivity. The other singers are all excellent. One of the most impressive duets is the last, following Jesus's burial, 'Schlaf wohl, du Gottessohn' (Sleep well, son of God), impressively sung by Magdalene Harer and Joowon Chung. The voices blend perfectly, and as a result the choruses and chorales are among the highlights of this recording.

The booklet leaves something to be desired. The lyrics include quite a number of printing errors, which is rather annoying. Much worse is the lack of an English translation of the libretto. That does not help making this work accessible to the non-German speaking part of the world. However, the quality of Künstel's St Mark Passion is such, that it should be performed elsewhere too.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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