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

[I] "Markus-Passion" (ed. S. Heighes)
Veronika Winter (Ancilla, arias), soprano; Anne Bierwirth, contralto; Achim Kleinlein (Evangelist, arias), tenor; Michael Jäckel (Judas, Pontifex, aria), Albrecht Pöhl (Jesus), bass
Knabenchor Hannover; Hannoversche Hofkapelle
Dir: Jörg Breiding
rec: March 23 - 25, 2013, Twistringen, St. Anna
Rondeau - ROP7015/16 (2 CDs) (© 2014) (1.43'20")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[soloists from the choir] Georg Drake (Pilatus), Nils Ole Peters (Alterus, Petrus), tenor; Matthias Hagenah (Hauptman, Soldat), bass

[II] "Markus-Passion (BWV 247)" (ed. A. Grychtolik)
Gudrun Sidonie Otto (Ancilla, arias), soprano; Terry Wey, alto; Daniel Johannsen (Evangelist, arias), tenor; Stephan MacLeod (Centurion, Hohepriester, Petrus, Pilatus, arias), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Jesus), bass
Knabenkantorei Basel; Capriccio Barockorchester
Dir: Markus Teutschbein
rec: March 19 - 22, 2014, Basel, Martinskirche
Rondeau - ROP609091 (2 CDs) (© 2015) (1.53'50")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[soloists from the choir] Matthias Küng (Falscher Zeuge), alto; Timothy Löw (Soldat), tenor; Tiziano Seewer (Falscher Zeuge), Tobias Wurmehl (Judas), bass

Passiontide was an important part of the ecclesiastical year in Lutheran Germany. The large amount of music written for this period bears witness to that. Part of this repertoire are the oratorio Passions, usually based on one of the Gospels. The annual performance of such a Passion in the five main churches in Hamburg is well documented. It explains the number of Passions from the pen of Georg Philipp Telemann, who was director musices here from 1721 until his death. However, a comparable tradition must have existed in many towns across Germany, including Leipzig. Johann Sebastian Bach almost certainly performed a Passion every year. He didn't necessarily perform music from his own pen. At least two performances of the St Mark Passion, usually attributed to Reinhard Keiser, are documented for 1726 and 1748. The fact that Bach's only two extant Passions, the St Matthew Passion and the St John Passion, exist in various versions also points in the direction of an annual Passion performance. According to the obituary (Nekrolog) which was included in Lorenz Mizler's Musicalische Bibliothek in 1754 Bach composed "five Passions, of which one is for double chorus". 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.

Several attempts have been made to reconstruct the latter Passion in order to enable it being performed, giving at least some impression of what it may have sounded like. It is generally assumed that Bach reused material he had written previously. The so-called Trauer-Ode (BWV 198), Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl is considered one of the main sources for the St Mark Passion. Among other cantatas from which music is taken is Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54). For the chorales performers turn to a collection of harmonisations by Bach which were published after his death by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. There may be a kind of consensus in these matters but we should keep in mind that there is no evidence whatsoever that the St Mark Passion is largely based on pre-existing material. Bach's adaptation of older music is a well-documented practice but its application in his St Mark Passion is a matter of speculation. It cannot be excluded that he wrote new music for at least some arias or choruses. The same goes for the chorales: as Bach usually adapted the harmony to the text the harmonisations in the above-mentioned collection may well be different from those he may have used in his Passion.

And then there are the recitatives and the turbae. For these parts of the text - the narrative in the gospel after St Mark - we cannot fall back on existing material. Some performances confine themselves to the performance of the arias; the text is then recited. Michael Alexander Willens recorded it in this form. Another way to deal with this issue is to turn to music which is stylistically clearly different. Jos van Veldhoven once performed the St Mark Passion with the narrative in the setting by Marco Gioseppe Peranda (1625-1675). 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. The Dutch keyboard player and conductor Ton Koopman made his own reconstruction.

The two recordings to be reviewed here follow different paths. Jörg Breiding recorded the reconstruction by the musicologist Simon Heighes which has more or less become the standard. The latter makes use of the arias which are part of earlier reconstructions. For the recitatives and the turbae Heighes turned to the St Mark Passion attributed to Keiser as mentioned above. That is the safest and probably also the most satisfying option. We know that Bach held this work in high esteem; he performed it at least four times, twice in Weimar and twice in Leipzig. Stylistically this work and Bach's own Passions are not that far apart. That said, there are differences, for instance in that in Keiser's Passion phrases from Jesus' recitatives are sometimes repeated, something Bach almost never does. Some of Heighes' choices for the turbae are not really convincing. One of the least satisfying is 'Er hat andern geholfen' (39d) in which the second phrase is preceded by an instrumental episode. The use of 'Keiser's' Passion also means that the role of Judas is sung by an alto and Peter is a tenor. It seems likely that Bach scored these parts for a bass, like he did in his two extant Passions. An additional problem is that 'Keiser's' work begins with the night on the Mount of Olives. That means that there is no music for the first 25 verses which are included in the libretto of Bach's St Mark Passion, written by Picander. Heighes composed the music of the recitatives in these verses himself.

In March 2013 a performance with the same interpreters was broadcast live by the German channel NDR3 and in the introduction we were told that some modifications of Heighes' edition had been made. Unfortunately the booklet includes no details about this matter. I wondered whether these concern the text of the recitatives. I noted several differences between the text as printed in the booklet and what is sung. I assumed that the former is the same as the one Heighes has used. I turned to the recording of his version under the direction of Roy Goodman (Brilliant Classics) and noticed that the recitatives in that performance are also different in some details from the text in the booklet of Breiding's recording. I can't really figure out what causes these differences.

The German keyboard player and musicologist Alexander Grychtolik has made his own reconstruction. This is partly inspired by a textbook which was found in 2009 in St Petersburg. Up until then two performances of the St Mark Passion were documented: the first on Good Friday 1731 in Leipzig, another in Delitzsch, a town north of Leipzig, in 1735, directed by the local Kantor Christoph Gottlieb Fröber. The textbook which is preserved in the Russian National Library in St Petersburg refers to a performance in Leipzig in 1744. In the liner-notes to the recording directed by Markus Teutschbein Grychtolik writes that this suggests that the St Mark Passion took a more important place in Bach's oeuvre than has been thought. The textbook is particularly interesting because it includes some alterations of and additions to the version of 1731. Bach added one aria to both parts, for tenor and alto respectively. "These are the arias of Peter (Ich lasse dich, mein Jesus, nicht) and the aria reflecting on Pilate's interrogation of Jesus (Will ich doch gar gerne schweigen). Both arias are now lost." He has reconstructed them from pre-existing music but unfortunately he doesn't tell from which sources he has taken the music. It is a bit misleading to refer to the first aria as being "of Peter". It follows the discipel's assurance that he won't deny Jesus. But as the role of Peter is sung by a bass and this aria is scored for tenor there is no direct connection between him and the aria, just like there is no direct link between Peter and the aria 'Erbarme dich' in the St Matthew Passion which immediately follows his denial.

For the other arias Grychtolik turns to earlier reconstructions which we also find in Heighes' edition. The exception is 'Angenehmes Mordgeschrei' where he made a different choice (again not specified). For the turbae he takes music from the two other Passions as Grychtolik believes "that there are no other compositionally adequate models for these in Bach's extant vocal works". He decided to compose the recitatives himself but on the basis of the recitatives in the St Matthew Passion. In the part of Jesus he sometimes quotes literally from the latter work. This means that these recitatives are all accompanied. That is also the case in Heighes' edition, in accordance with 'Keiser's' Passion. But, again, there is no evidence to suggest that Bach followed here the practice in the St Matthew Passion rather than that of his St John Passion where the recitatives in the part of Jesus are accompanied by basso continuo alone.

Some choices in the various reconstructions seem rather odd. That goes, for instance, for those turbae where Heighes turns to the Christmas Oratorio. In one instance he reuses the chorus Ehre sei Gott and that sounds very strange if one knows where it comes from. However, this is probably more a problem of our time which was not felt - may be not even noticed - in Bach's time. As Grychtolik writes. "If today's listeners experience a musical deja-vu on hearing the present reconstruction, this is the result of the intensive canonisation of the St John and St Matthew Passions in the present day. The listeners of Bach's own day would not have noticed these parallels resulting from the parody of individual movements".

Having given an overview of the two editions I turn to the actual performances. Obviously Breiding has more competition than Teutschbein as he uses the 'standard' edition. His recording has some virtues but also considerable weaknesses. Unfortunately the latter are decisive. The main problem is the reverberant acoustic; as a result too many details are lost. The text is not always clearly understandable, especially in the turbae, as these are often sung in a fast tempo. These problems are only increased by the size of the choir. The turbae need the greater agility of a smaller ensemble which would have made them more dramatic than they are here. Breiding has fine soloists at his disposal who deliver stylish performances. Veronika Winter is especially impressive in 'Angenehmes Mordgeschrei'. Anne Bierwirth sings nicely but is short on expression, particularly in 'Falsche Welt, dein schmeichelnd Küssen'. Dynamically it is rather flat; there is even hardly any dynamic shading on long notes. Achim Kleinlein gives a good account of the part of the Evangelist but his tempo is generally too slow and rhythmically his performance lacks flexibility. Albrecht Pöhl delivers a convincing performance of the part of Jesus. Among the virtues are the performances of the choruses which open and close this Passion. The best part are the chorales which are sung with much attention to the text and include dynamic accents where they are needed. All in all I probably prefer Goodman although his Evangelist and his bass are not really satisfying.

Teutschbein's recording has to be approached from two angles. This is just as much about Grychtolik's reconstruction as about the way the performers have realized it. As far as the former aspect is concerned, Grychtolik has done a fine job in his writing of the recitatives which seem to me much closer to Bach's idiom than those of Ton Koopman. But especially where Grychtolik turns to the St Matthew Passion and adapts recitatives to a text which is somewhat different his solutions didn't always satisfy me. Some of the turbae are also problematic. In case of the above-mentioned chorus 'Er hat andern geholfen' he follows Heighes which I find hard to understand. On the other hand, in case of the aria 'Angenehmes Mordgeschrei' the version in the Heighes edition is much to be preferred. It probably needs time to get used to this version. Time will tell whether it will establish itself as an alternative to the existing versions, and particularly Heighes.

Like Breiding Teutschbein can rely on a good team of soloists. Daniel Johannsen is an excellent Evangelist who conveys the text very clearly and shows the right amount of emotional involvement. But here I also noted that sometimes the tempo is too slow. Hanno Müller-Brachmann is impressive in the role of Jesus, which he represents with the proper degree of authority. Stephan MacLeod makes the most of the roles of Pilate, Peter and the high priest. He is equally convincing in his single aria and so is Johannsen in both of his arias. I am a little less satisfied with Gudrun Sidonie Otto; here I prefer Veronika Winter whose singing is more stable whereas in Ms Otto's performance now and then a nervous vibrato creeps in. Terry Wey is a bit of a mixed baggage; 'Falsche Welt, dein schmeichelnd Küssen' is dynamically a bit too flat but there is much more expression here than in Anne Bierwirth's performance. The same goes for 'Mein Heiland, dich vergess ich nicht'. However, the short aria 'Will ich doch gar gerne schweigen' is disappointing, as Wey's singing is marred by an insistent flutter.

The approach to the chorales and turbae is largely the same in both recordings but to me the Knabenchor Hannover is simply better than the Knabenkantorei Basel. Unfortunately Teutschbein's recording suffers from the same problem as Breiding's: the acoustic is too reverberant. The effects are the same: the turbae lack transparency and because of that the text is not always clearly understandable and they are less dramatic than they should be. The choruses which open and close the St Mark Passion come across better in Breiding's performance: it has greater rhythmic subtlety, and especially in the closing chorus the accents in Teutschbein's performance are too pronounced.

From a historical point of view the latter's recording is the most interesting and important as it presents the first performance of Grychtolik's edtion which deserves to be taken seriously. Musically speaking both versions have virtues but also serious weaknesses. In that respect they are not fundamentally different.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Knabenchor Hannover
Knabenkantorei Basel
Capriccio Barockorchester
Hannoversche Hofkapelle

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