Bach St Mark Passion

Author: 
Nicholas Anderson

Bach St Mark Passion

  • St Mark Passion
  • Laudate pueri Dominum

If we are to believe Bach’s obituary notice, the composer wrote as many as five settings of the Passion story. Only the St John and St Matthew have survived, but we know a little about a third setting, the St Mark, which was performed in 1731. While only the text (by Bach’s frequent collaborator, Picander) has been handed down, it would seem that the musical element consisted substantially of material which Bach had already used in other contexts. Some of it can be traced to two sacred cantatas, the Trauer Ode (No. 198) and Widerstehe, doch der Sunde (No. 54), and Cantata No. 244a, Klagt, Kinder, klagt, written for the funeral of Prince Leopold, whom Bach had served at Cothen. In other words, the St Mark Passion is mainly a ‘parody’ of music identifiable in sufficient quantity to attract reconstructors whose responsibility lies mainly in the provision of the narrative element of recitative, and turbae choruses.
Several attempts have been made over the past half-century to present Bach’s St Mark Passion in a plausible performing version, notably by Diethard Hellmann (1964), Gustav Theil (1980) and, much more recently, by Simon Heighes. The present edition is the work of Andor Gomme, who has been interested in realizing the project for many years. His solution differs from that of Heighes in its entire dependence upon Reinhard Keiser’s St Mark Passion as a source for the recitatives and turbae. Bach was certainly familiar with this work and may well have performed it at Leipzig in the mid-1720s. The textual issue is acrucial one for an editor, since Keiser’s librettist takes up the narrative somewhat later than Picander. So while Heighes keeps closer faith with Picander, necessitating the insertion of newly composed recitatives, Gomme begins where Keiser does, and is thus faced with the problem of accommodating elsewhere any displaced music by Bach himself, or in which he clearly had a hand. On the whole he has managed it well, though I find some of the resulting key juxtapositions unsettling.
All of which underlines the impossibility of arriving at a definitive version or, indeed, anything approaching one. There is of course much more to be taken into account than space allows here, but readers will want to know which of the two recordings makes the stronger case out of conjecture. Both succeed in drawing together a dramatically motivated account of the Passion story, and both are thoughtful, well-intentioned projects. The solo vocalists in the rival Musica Oscura version under Roy Goodman’s direction have the edge on those of this new release directed by Geoffrey Webber. And on balance the Ring Ensemble of Finland and the European Union Baroque Orchestra project a stronger aura of confidence, and greater technical finesse, than the Gonville and Caius College Choir and the Cambridge Baroque Camerata. Yet the greater vocal clarity and gentler instrumental inflexions of the Cambridge groups – the opening chorus and alto aria ‘Falsche Welt’ are telling instances of what I mean – create a more sympathetic and intimately expressive picture than the other; and so it is that, in the end, I feel more emotionally responsive to and more stylistically at home with the new version. Furthermore it contains in addition a fine setting by Keiser of the Latin psalm Laudate pueri Dominum, whose ambivalent stance between older and more forward-looking styles is but one of several striking features.'

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