Keiser The Passion According to St Mark

Author: 
Jonathan Freeman-Attwood

Keiser The Passion According to St Mark

  • St. Mark Passion

That Reinhard Keiser, a notable opera composer in Hamburg in an age of stiff competition, seems to have attracted the attention of Bach with his St Mark Passion of 1717 speaks volumes; many of the voice parts in one source are in Bach's own hand which would suggest strongly that the Cantor performed the piece himself in Leipzig. There are many distinctive characteristics of Keiser's setting where parallels with Bach's Passions can be drawn, and indeed it is likely that Bach learnt a good deal from composers like Keiser who were applying operatic principles to religious themes. The passion, of course, was well established in Germany by the eighteenth century (Keiser, incidentally, was taught by Thomas Selle, a forerunner of Bach as Cantor at St Thomas's, Leipzig and an important composer of Passions). Judging by the structural competence of Keiser's setting, we can be sure that Bach was as interested in the skilful layout of the work as he was in the musical language, which combines an old-fashioned five-part orchestral texture (recalling Bach's ancestors of a previous generation where instruments played an important symbolic part in the 'commentary' of the narrative) with a more sophisticated and diverse use of current idioms.
Compared with Bach, Keiser's Passion can seem small-scale, matter-of-fact and undeveloped (how much we take for granted), though it is as well to remember that for all Keiser's operatic and worldly experience his music intentionally recalls, in spirit at least, something of the direct and austere narrative akin to Schutz's St Matthew Passion (such as the opening and final choruses). That said, there are detailed traits which are most Bach-like: a string accompanied Christus, reflective da capo arias, dramatic crowd involvement and a resourceful use of the chorale melody in several manifestations. More specifically, Keiser has a wonderfully Bachian habit of subtle harmonic colouring at well-chosen moments; some of those inimitably poignant and potent shadings in Bach's passions are foreshadowed here.
This is the second reading of Keiser's St Mark Passion. The first appeared in 1971 conducted by the versatile keyboard player, Jurg Ewald Dahler. Reappraisal on period instruments, if not exactly overdue, does much to sharpen the contours of this distinctive hour-long oratorio. Christian Brembeck is a sympathetic director and his young group of musicians serve him well. Hartmut Elbert is an authoritative, if slightly blustering Jesus with a number of sections with rough edges which clearly should have been re-taken (the strings have been allowed to get away with too much as well). None of the other solo contributions stand out especially, though that perhaps has much to do with the nature of the work where soloists emerge from the ripieno regularly. The exception is the Evangelist, Bernhard Hirtreiter, whose expressive and musical delivery is admirable throughout. Undoubtedly, this is something of a specialists' release, though this piece is significantly better than stock Kleinmeister fare; those who love German baroque vocal music and/or are interested in Bach's close contemporaries and musical heritage will not be disappointed.'

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