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Reinhard KEISER (1674 - 1739) (attr): St Mark Passion

Jan Kobow (Evangelist), tenor; Thomas E. Bauer (Jesus), bass
Ensemble Jacques Moderne; Gli Incogniti
Dir: Joël Suhubiette

rec: April 2014, Fontevraud, Abbaye Royale
Mirare - MIR 254 (© 2015) (76'37")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[EJM] Cécile Dibon, Anne Magiouët (Magd, arias), Cyprile Meier, soprano; David Erler (Hohepriester, arias), Guilhem Terrail (Judas, Kriegsknecht), Gunther Vandeven (Hauptmann), alto; Olivier Coiffet (Pilatus), Stephan Van Dyck (Petrus, arias), Marc Manodritta, tenor; Didier Chevalier, Christophe Sam, Pierre Virly, bass
[GI] Antoine Torunczyk, oboe; Amandine Beyer, Alba Roca, violin; Marta Páramo, Ottavia Rausa, viola; Marco Ceccato, cello; Mélodie Michel, bassoon; Baldomero Barciela, violone; Francesco Romano, theorbo; Anna Fontana, harpsichord, organ

For many years Reinhard Keiser was closely connected to the Oper am Gänsemarkt in Hamburg. He was the first really great German opera composer. His colleague Johann Mattheson called him "the greatest opera composer in the world" and Johann Adolf Scheibe stated that he was "perhaps the most original musical genius that Germany has ever produced". Although there is a kind of revival of his music he still hardly gets the recognition he deserves. That is partly due to the fact that a large part - probably even most - of his oeuvre has been lost. His best-known work today is his Brockes-Passion. It is a specimen of the genre of the Passion oratorio which was to dominate Passion music during the 18th century. In comparison his St Mark Passion is very different: it belongs to the genre of the oratorio Passion to which also Johann Sebastian Bach's Passions belong. It has been documented that the latter performed his colleague's Passion at several occasions. That bears witness to his high esteem of his Keiser's work which probably also influenced his own Passions.

However, recent research has cast some doubt on the Passion's authenticity. In the booklet of the present recording we read: "Recent musicological research tends to suggest that the Markuspassion is not the work of Reinhard Keiser, essentially for stylistic reasons. However, it has not yet proved possible to attribute it positively to any other contemporary composer, such as Nicolaus Bruhns, or to Gottfried Keiser, Reinhard's father, and so its paternity is currently uncertain". This seems a realistic approach but the reference to Nicolaus Bruhns could create some misunderstanding. Nicolaus is one of the representatives of the north German organ school and was organist in Husum from 1689 until his death in 1697. He composed some cantatas but the Bruhns who is considered one of the candidates for the authorship of the St Mark Passion is his uncle Friedrich Nicolaus - sometimes also called Brauns - who became director of the Ratsmusik in Hamburg in 1682 and was Canonicus minor Kantor of the Cathedral there. The fact that he worked in Hamburg makes him a possible candidate. However, the St Mark Passion seems to reflect the practice of performing a Passion in Hamburg's main churches every year. The composition of such Passions was the duty of the director musices and that was a position Bruhns never held. The Cathedral had a specific position in Hamburg: it was extraterritorial, as since 1715 it was under the supervision of the House of Braunschweig-Lüneburg. Bruhns' position was later taken by Mattheson and from his pen no work like the St Mark Passion is known. That raises the question for which occasion Bruhns might have written it, assuming that he is indeed the composer.

No performance in Hamburg seems to have been documented. The present recording uses an edition by Hans Bergmann which is based in essence on the version performed under Bach's direction in Weimar in 1713 where he had performed it also the year before. In the performance the interpreters have derived from what were the likely performing conditions in Weimar. "In the small chapel of the castle in Weimar, singers and instrumentalists could scarcely have performed more than one to a part. But things were certainly quite different in the large naves of the Nikolaikirche and the Thomaskirche in Leipzig [where Bach performed the St Mark Passion in 1726 and again in 1748], where it is very likely that the oboe doubled the top line in several places, as is Bach's regular practice in chorales to bring out the melody, and that the ripienists sang three to a part, according to the wishes expressed by the Thomaskantor himself". The latter is highly debated; it is not realistic to expect this issue to be discussed at length in the booklet to the present recording but there should have been at least a reference to the fact that this assumption is not universally shared. It is also mentioned that Bach's performance in 1726 included some alterations. The only one specified here - and followed in the performance - is the addition of a chorale to end the first part.

The Passion begins with the night on the Mount of Olives. This suggests that this Passion was written for performances in Hamburg's main churches, because that is the episode with which all of Telemann's Passions begin. This is in contrast to the St Mark Passion by Bach which begins with the chief priests and scribes planning to capture Jesus and the anointing in Bethany. The first part opens with a sonata and chorus, the second part with a sinfonia. The arias are mostly rather short; the two longest are 'Wein, ach, wein jetzt um die Wette' (tenor; Part 1) and 'O Golgatha! Platz herber Schmerzen' (soprano; Part 2) which last between four and five minutes. The former follows Peter's denial and it is notable that it includes an obbligato violin part, just like 'Erbarme dich' in Bach's St Matthew Passion. The number of chorales is also limited which may have been one of the reasons that Bach added one at the end of Part 1. One of the chorales has the form of an aria for alto, 'Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden' (Part 2). The work ends with three stanzas from the hymn O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid (1628/1641) - the first stanza as a chorale, the seventh in the form of a chorus (O selig ist zu aller Frist) and the eighth and last again as a chorale (O Jesu du, mein Hilf und Ruh) - and a chorus on the word "Amen".

The structure of this work - the episode where it starts, the relative concision of the arias and the small number of chorales - lends this work a special character which is very different from Bach's Passions. However, stylistically there is not such a wide gap between them, and that may well explain that Bach held this work in high esteem. If you like Bach's Passions you certainly should investigate this work by Keiser or Bruhns which is much closer to Bach than Keiser's Brockes Passion. The arias are very fine and the recitatives are well written.

The performance is a further reason to add this disc to your collection. I would have preferred a scoring of the tutti which would have been more in line with the practice in Weimar and was probably not fundamentally different from what was common in Hamburg. However, the choruses have enough transparency. The text is given much attention, also in the chorales. Particularly nice is 'Was mein Gott will' which is set as a chorale arrangement in a rather old-fashioned way; it reminds me of the chorales in the cantatas of Johann Ludwig Bach. The turbae come across in dramatic fashion. Jan Kobow is an eloquent Evangelist and Thomas Bauer realizes the part of Jesus with the right amount of emotion but without exaggeration. The arias are given outstanding performances by Anne Magouët, David Erler and Stephan Van Dyck.

The two ensembles ideally cooperate and together they have managed to create a close to ideal performance of this St Mark Passion. Whoever is the composer, he has given us a work to savour which should be performed more often.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Jacques Moderne
Gli Incogniti

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