This impressive live recording of the St. Mark Passion
BWV 247 forms part of the Carus label’s series of recordings ‘Music
from the Frauenkirche Dresden
’. Fittingly I received
this release - an account of Jesus’s Passion based on the
Gospel of Mark - during Lent in time for Easter. Founded in the
eleventh century the Dresden Frauenkirche was burnt out and destroyed
as a result of Allied bombing in February 1945. After decades
of inactivity extensive reconstruction work commenced in 1992.
The work in the interior and organ was finally completed in 2005
when the restored Frauenkirche was consecrated.
Just as the Frauenkirche Dresden was reconstructed so was the St.
. Bach’s obituary from 1750 claimed that
he had written five passions. Only the St. John Passion
and the St. Matthew Passion
(1727) have survived in their
entirety. The St. Mark Passion
was known to have been
first performed on Good Friday 1731 at the St. Thomas Church
It seems that Bach’s score of the St.
was at one time held under the stewardship of
his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. Virtually all of the music is now
lost and only two printed copies of the Picander texts were known.
In 2009 another printed copy of the text was found in St. Petersburg,
Russia containing two additional arias. Over the years there
have been several attempts to reconstruct the music to the St.
Notably Dietmar Hellmann realised a version
of the score in 1964. This adaptation for Carus of the St.
directed by Michael Alexander Willens has been
prepared by Bach scholar Andreas Glöckner based on Dietmar
Unity is provided in the reconstructed score to the St. Mark
by the often repeated use of familiar chorale melodies.
Probably best known for its use in Bach’s Christmas
, BWV 248 and the St. Matthew Passion
244 is Hans Leo Hassler’s well known hymn tune Herzlich
tut mich Erlangen
which is employed here on three of the
tracks. Also used is the famous chorale melody attributed to
Martin Luther Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott
used in his cantata BWV 80 of the same name.
Vocal ensemble Amarcord was founded in 1992 originally by former
male members of the St. Thomas Church choir in Leipzig. On this
Carus recording of the St. Mark Passion
Amarcord use nine
soloists who also perform the choir parts. Normally Amarcord
consist of five male voices: Wolfram Lattke (tenor); Martin Lattke
(tenor); Frank Osijek (baritone); Daniel Knauft (bass) and Holger
Krause (bass). For this project and some other projects with
music by Heinrich Schütz and his contemporaries the ensemble
are augmented by four guest female singers: Anja Zügner
(soprano); Dorothea Wagner (soprano); Clare Wilkinson (alto)
and Silvia Janak (alto). Under their talented music director
Michael Alexander Willens the fifteen strong Die Kölner
Akademie (The Cologne Academy) perform Bach’s late-baroque
music on instruments appropriate to the period.
Bach recordings using large-scale forces on modern instruments
were the norm in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s but are far less
common today. A particular favourite Bach interpreter of sacred
music is Karl Richter who in the period 1958/75 released over
seventy cantatas for Archiv Produktion. Only the most passionate
of authenticists would fail to acknowledge the distinction of
these recordings. In addition Richter’s older contemporary
and fellow countryman the conductor Fritz Werner recorded around
60 cantatas in the 1950s-1970s for Erato. I have enjoyed the
splendid and passionate 1973/74 account of the Bach Mass in
, BWV 232 from Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin
Philharmonic and the Wiener Singverein with a stellar cast of
soloists on Deutsche Grammophon 459 4602. Following the tradition
of using large-scale forces there are several other recordings
that I admire especially the recordings from the 1950s and 1960s
from conductors Carlo Maria Giulini/BBC Legends and Otto Klemperer/EMI.
Michael Alexander Willens’ historically informed approach
to Bach’s sacred choral music is in the spirit of the authentic
performance style that quickly became fashionable and began to
take centre-stage around the 1980s. Hearing the finest of these
period instrument performances can persuade even the most diehard
traditionalist that smaller forces can provide considerable advantages.
With their intimate and lean approach to performing Bach the
very finest of the period instrument exponents provide glorious
clear tones, crisp and clear articulation with eloquent phrasing
and rhythmic control. Probably the best known authentic instrument
specialists performing Bach today are Harry Christophers/Caro;
Paul McCreesh/Deutsche Grammophon; John Eliot Gardiner/Archiv
Produktion and Soli Deo Gloria; Masaaki Suzuki/BIS; Andrew Parrott/Virgin;
Sigiswald Kuijken/Challenge Classics and Philippe Herreweghe/Harmonia
The relatively spare resources that Willens employs here in the St.
reminds me of a similar approach taken by director
Paul McCreesh with his nine vocalists and twenty-seven strong
Gabrieli Players on their marvellous recording of Bach’s St.
on Deutsche Grammophon 474 200-2. Recorded
in 2002 at Roskilde Cathedral, McCreesh using single voices to
a part divides his vocal soloists who divide the choir into two
and his Gabrieli Players are split too. Another period instrument
specialist favouring a scaled down approach is Andrew Parrott
and his Taverner Consort and Players on their highly successful
account of the St. John Passion
on Virgin Veritas 5 62019
2. Parrott who recorded the score in 1990 at Abbey Road, London
with two voices to a part employs just eleven solo singers to
form the choir with the use of additional boys’ voices.
Although compact the vocal forces of Willens, McCreesh and Parrott
should not be underestimated. They are eminently characterful
and can convey a real potency. In reality these directors probably
employ a larger number of singers and players than the resources
that Bach could afford and usually had available to him. For
Willens the recitatives and choral responses are expertly narrated
by actor Dominique Horwitz as the Evangelist who is placed in
a slightly over-resonant location at the Dresden Frauenkirche.
I did find it hard to get used to the concept of spoken recitatives
and choral responses. A far more satisfactory effect is achieved
by both Paul McCreesh/Deutsche Grammophon in the St. Matthew
and Andrew Parrott/Virgin Veritas in the St. John
who use sung recitatives with basso continuo
with responses from the choir. John Eliot Gardiner’s period
instrument account of the St. Matthew Passion
at Snape Maltings for Archiv Produktion also uses sung recitatives
with basso continuo
and a chorus for the responses.
Michael Alexander Willens is in total sympathy with the music
and directs his orchestral and choral forces with significant
effect. Most impressive is the crisp and sensitive playing from
the period instrument ensemble Die Kölner Akademie. In the
choruses Willens obtains consistently glorious singing from the
augmented vocal ensemble Amarcord. High on expression and reverential
character the balance of the nine strong choir never cries out
for increased weight. Overall the blend between the vocal forces
and the instrumental accompaniment feels just right. I think
placing the woodwind a touch further forward in the balance would
have been preferable.
Of the cast of soloists alto Clare Wilkinson performs both Mein
, dich vergeß ich nicht!
I’ll forget thee not!
) and Falsche Welt
(Untrue world, thy fawning kisses
Her two arias are excellent vehicles for the alto to demonstrate
her attractively creamy and flexible timbre. Singing with dutiful
distinction in Falsche Welt
the smoothness of her long
vocal line is striking. In the soprano aria Er kommt
, er ist vorhanden!
(He comes, he comes, he
is now present!
) I enjoyed Dorothea Wagner’s bright
and fresh tones with excellent diction and piety. It would be
remiss not to mention the delightful violin playing from leader
Wolfram Lattke performs his aria Mein Tröster ist nicht mehr bey mir
Helper is no more with me
) with appropriate regard for the sacred text. The
tenor felt especially comfortable when under pressure in his high register but
I was less than enamoured with his trait for ‘r’ rolling. Notable
is the violin playing from Pauline Nobes that prefaces the aria Welt und Himmel
nehmt zu Ohren
(World and Heaven, O now Hearken
). The smooth, light
creamy timbre of soprano Anja Zügner is most attractive. She seems most
secure and happiest at the top of her range.
This is a live recording from Dresden Frauenkirche. I couldn’t hear any
significant audience noise and there is no applause at the conclusion of the
score. The Frauenkirche acoustic has a noticeable if slight reverberation but
nothing to detract from the pleasure and the agreeably clear sound. This excellently
presented and performed release of the St. Mark’s Passion
includes a fine and informative essay together with full German texts with English
translations. Bach collectors and lovers of sacred music should not hesitate.