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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750: St Mark Passion (BWV 247)a
Volker Bräutigam (b1939): Evangeliemusik zu Bachs Markuspassionb

Ulrike Staudea, soprano; Klaudia Zeinera, contralto; Hermann Oswaldb [Evangelist], Martin Petzolda, tenor; Wolf Matthias Friedrichb [Jesus], bass
Leipziger Vocalensemblea; cantores lipsiensisb
Leipziger Barockorchestera; Christiane Bräutigamb, organ; Stephan Stoporab, percussion
Dir: David Timma, Volker Bräutigamb
rec: April 5, 2003, Leipzig, Thomanerkirche [live]
Raumklang - RK 2307 (2 CDs; 45'00"/39'49")

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. There is even a recording where the text of the gospel is recited.
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). This work, once thought to be composed by Heinrich Schütz, was first performed at Good Friday 1668 in Dresden, where Peranda was Kapellmeister since 1663.

The present recording goes into another direction: the German composer Volker Bräutigam composed music specifically to fill in the missing parts in Bach's St Mark Passion. Bräutigam is a well-known composer in Germany, whose musical education started as a choirboy in the Dresdner Kreuzchor, where he became acquainted with many contemporary compositions. He worked as organist and choirmaster at the Heilandkirche in Leipzig. As organist he promoted the music of Olivier Messiaen. As composer of religious music he was strongly influenced by representatives of the revival of German church music, like Siegfried Reda, Ernst Pepping and Johann Nepomuk David.
Since the 1970s he was thinking about a way to complete Bach's St Mark Passion. "It was immediately clear a completion in the style of Bach was artistically untenable and only opposing elements were an option. A mere 'musical winding' of the text was ruled out. Structural material of an all-inclusive nature had to be found which enabled: uniting or heaping of musical elements, objectivity, and the forming of formal structures and, despite all formalities, allowed ample freedom for illustration." In 1981 he took the decision to make use of the twelve tone technique. "Essentially, my music is a type of psalm, whose formula-like qualities appear also in the organ part. The formula is not stereotypically repeated but reworked compositionally (in strict twelve tone although the piece itself is not twelve-tone). It is abandoned at Christ's words and other dramatic climaxes". The first performance took place on Palm Sunday 1981 in the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig.

As someone who has no antenna for contemporary music I don't consider myself qualified to give a verdict on the quality of Volker Bräutigam's music. I have noticed some interesting aspects, though. Firstly, Bräutigam has kept the idea of recitative, in that the words of the Evangelist, Jesus and the soliloquents are all set for solo voice with organ accompaniment. Even one of the characteristics of the baroque recitative accompaniment - chords followed by a pause - is applied here. The addition of percussion at some dramatic moments - for instance the arrest of Jesus - could be interpreted as the modern counterpart of the baroque recitativo accompagnato, even though Bach doesn't use that in his Passions in this way. Secondly, as the performance recorded here was directed by the composer one may assume that the interpretation reflects his ideals. The parts of the Evangelist and Jesus are sung by singers who have made a name as interpreters of early music. Their singing here reflects that, which means they use minimal vibrato and focus on a clear and audible diction of the text. This underlines the suggestion that Bräutigam deliberately wants to connect his composition to the past. Bräutigam's composition even begins with a 'heading' as we find them in Schütz' Passions: "Das Leiden und Sterben unseres Herrn und Heilandes Jesu Christi nach dem Heiligen Evangelisten Markus".
Bräutigam's music is certainly expressive in its own way. The use of the organ is effective, and I personally could more connect to it if he had left it there. To me the addition of the percussion is often superfluous, and sometimes even irritating.

The main question to me is whether this is a convincing concept. Basically I agree that the use of contrasting musical styles is an option to enable the performance of an incomplete composition, perhaps a better one than the use of music by a contemporary, which has some similarity with that of the composer, but isn't quite the same, and often - in particular in this case - isn't of the same level. Bach's St Mark Passion makes it easier to apply this option, since only the music on madrigalian texts and the chorales can be reconstructed, and the text of the gospel is left to be set in another style. Without the context of the St Mark Passion, Bräutigam's music could be performed independently without any problem: it would be the same kind of composition we know from Schütz - just the text of the gospel without any addition. The difference between Bach and Bräutigam is enhanced by the fact that the performers are completely different: the singers (soloists and choir) which perform Bach's music don't participate in Bräutigam's music, and vice versa. I even have the impression the performers were on different spots in the church where this live recording was made. That is perhaps the minus of this 'reconstruction' as the acoustical circumstances change from one section to the other.
I tend to answer the question whether this is a convincing concept affirmatively. That has a lot to do with the way Volker Bräutigam has realised this concept. Although he makes use of a modern musical language, he shows a good understanding of the nature of Bach's music, and links up with that as much as his idiom allows.

The performance of Bach's music is rather uneven. The orchestra is playing very well in the arias, with a clear articulation and a fine sense of rhythm. I was positively surprised by that as the opening chorus tends to drag. The same happens in the closing chorus. In both cases the tempi are a little too slow as well. The choir is disappointing: apart from being too large it produces a rather massive sound and lacks clarity and flexibility. The chorales are unsatisfying as well: they are sung mainly legato, and not enough attention is paid to the text. The contralto, who has a beautiful voice, and the tenor are giving fine performances, but the soprano doesn't perform at the same level. Not only does she use too much vibrato, her diction also is unsatisfactory, in particular in passages at a faster pace.

This recording is perhaps not recommendable to those people who just want to hear a really good performance of Bach's St Mark Passion. But to those who have an open ear for contemporary music, I would recommend this production as a concept of reconstruction which is both interesting and thought-provoking.

Johan van Veen (© 2005)

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