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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St Mark Passion (reconstructed by Alexander Grychtolik, premiere recording)
Gudrun Sidonie Otto (soprano)
Terry Wey (alto)
Daniel Johannsen (tenor)
Stephan MacLeod (bass)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone)
Knabenkantorei Basel
Capriccio Barockorchester/Markus Teutschbein
rec. 2014, Martinskirche, Basel
RONDEAU PRODUCTION ROP6090/1 [2 CDs: 114:00]

The St Mark Passion has been lost but that hasn’t stopped several musicologists from making attempts to reconstruct it over the years. I’m rather sceptical of these attempts, as a whole, and the only thing that attracted me to this one was the claim that it was based on a new document to have been uncovered in the Russian National Library in St Petersburg. In the end, though, I found the explanation in the booklet notes rather spurious, though, because the document in question gives details of the text Bach used, but no hints whatever about the music, so in that sense Alexander Grychtolik’s reconstruction is as speculative as all the others.

Most scholars agree that the St Mark was a parody work, cobbled together by Bach from his other music, and there is some evidence (I’m told) that he linked it with his funeral ode, BWV 198. You can hear some very strong links to that piece in several parts of this reconstruction, most notably in the vocal line of the chorus that opens part one and, more obviously, in the tenor aria that opens part two. Elsewhere, some arias are chosen that fit the text and situation very well: the beautiful Widerstehe doch der Sünde, for example, from BWV 54, makes appropriate music for reflection on the falsehood of the world straight after Judas' kiss. The turba choruses are very similar to those of the St Matthew Passion, though, and the scene of the anointing at Bethany is almost identical. I found myself criticising the music for being rather derivative, but then I thought to myself: what else can it possibly be? After all, you’re trying to reconstruct Bach using Bach, so Grychtolik had little choice but to copy.

The soloists in the performance are mostly very good. Daniel Johanssen is a capable Evangelist, unfolding the story directly and clearly in his clean, airy tenor. There is plenty of flexibility and art to his arias, too, and he is at his best at the start of Part Two. Terry Wey sounds ethereal and beautiful in his first aria, vigorous and engaging in his second, and Gudrun Sidonie Otto has an open, enticing voice which I enjoyed. Stephan MacLeod sings beautifully at the moment of Christ’s death. I must admit, however, that I'm liking Hanno Müller-Brachmann's voice less and less as time goes on. It seems to be developing more gravel to it, even a touch of the rasp, from which not even the halo of string sound that surrounds him can distract.

The orchestral sound is very good. The winds, in particular, are very characteristic and full of spice in comparison with more pinched, elemental strings, though the several cello and viol obbligati are beautifully enticing. The chorus are capable, but I just couldn't warm to the boys, whose windy lack of focus seemed to stick out of the texture in a most unbecoming way. They also seemed frequently to be grasping for the note rather than creating it with the maturity that professional adults would bring, sounding foggy and imprecise, a world away from the cleanliness and razor-like solidity of, say, Gardiner. It suits the chorales well enough, I suppose, setting them close to the humanity of the audience/congregation. Markus Teutschbein directs those moments capably but, fatally, the recitatives have a tendency to drag. There is a lot of recitative here, and that just kills the drama.

Diverting as this is, I won’t be rushing back to it. If I want to hear Bach’s Passiontide music then I’ll go to the originals, as I urge you to, as well. This St Mark is seeing the Passion in a glass darkly; basking in the full majesty of the St Matthew and St John will leave you bowled over.

Simon Thompson



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