Oregon Bach Festival review: A St. Mark Passion reborn

Reconstructing a lost Bach masterpiece

by BRUCE BROWNE

Even before the first bars of the Oregon Bach Festival’s production of a new reconstruction of J.S. Bach’s lost St. Mark Passion were played last Wednesday night at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, I wondered two things. After the attempts of the many former St. Marcheologists, what was the point of yet another? And more important, would this “finished product” be a St. Mark Passion that would stand with the already iconic St. John and St. Matthew works of this composer?

Matthew Halls led performances of his reconstruction of Bach's St. Mark Passion. Photo: Jon Christopher Meyers.

Matthew Halls led performances of his reconstruction of Bach’s St. Mark Passion. Photo: Jon Christopher Meyers.

The Process

Since none of Bach’s music for this work now exists, the new artistic director of Oregon Bach Festival, Matthew Halls, and Bach scholar Dominik Sackmann were left to fit music to the surviving texts of Picander (pen name of Christian Henrici). Their solution was to compose brand new music for the recitatives, as Bach would have; to choose arias that were largely from pre-existing cantatas of Bach, such as the Trauerode (Mourning Ode) composed in 1727; and for the chorales, to select among existing models from the large collections published by Barenreiter. The St. Mark, in contrast to Bach’s other extant Passions, has a surfeit of chorales, and many less turbae, or crowd choruses. This is a liability, if one is listening for dramatic movement and appeal. The turbae and recitatives move things forward; the reflective chorales stand still in time.

“Copying” (in music called “parody” when a composer does it himself, or to honor another composer) is certainly not new to the art world. In the visual arts, Elmyr de Hory was a very successful copyist, who forged paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Renoir, and made money doing it. In archeology, there was the Piltdown man. In music, though, there is not much chance of accumulated wealth from this process.

We applaud the purity of scholarship under which this reconstruction was conceived. There is no issue of monetary gain to be realized by the efforts of Messrs. Halls and Sackmann. Their work has come from a genuine love of, and interest in, perpetuating a dream: that the St. Mark story can reappear in a new garb, reborn with a new life that will give meaning to Bach and his passions.

But until and unless Bach’s real manuscripts are found, we will not have his St. Mark. As a renowned Bach scholar once told me, there is no point to looking into a work like the St. Mark, when there is no surviving music.

As admitted in the pre-concert lecture by Prof. Sackmann, and in the program notes, this is the latest of many attempts to reconstruct the St. Mark Passion. Fifty years ago, Diethard Hellmann and Gustav Adolf Theill were among the first advocates of the Passion reconstruction. More recently, Dutch early music pioneer (and former Portland Baroque Orchestra director) Ton Koopman used his own freely composed recitatives and his favorite works by Bach. Even Carl Orff got into the act in 1937, with a wild attempt at setting the St. Mark texts.

The Artistry

Regardless of his Passion’s success, last week’s performance showed that Matthew Halls is absolutely the right choice to take over the reins of the OBF. Orchestra, choir, soloists and the score were one under his direction.

His pacing was excellent. The Passion story must move forward on wings, somewhere between an opera and a newscast (“and now, this…”), and Halls’ pacing had it all. No down time. He is ambidextrous. He uses the left hand as expressively as the right, and multitasks with both. All while leading from the organ.

The Oregon Bach Festival's Matthew Halls tried to recreate J.S. Bach's lost music.

The Oregon Bach Festival’s Matthew Halls tried to recreate J.S. Bach’s lost music.

The Berwick Festival Chorus — lean, balanced and focused —sang beautifully for Maestro Halls. The use of period instruments allowed the chorus to be heard in all of its nuances and musical panache. The orchestra played equally well, but for a double reed mishap and some disagreements about articulations. The recorders and strings were first rate.

The soloists were a mixed bag. Most impressive were the three lower voices: Jesus, sung by baritone Tyler Duncan, was trenchant and silver toned, turning each phrase with appropriate changes of color and cadence.

The Evangelist must be the glue that holds the Passion drama together. As is traditional in almost all Passions, this “narrator” is a tenor who must sing a wide vocal and emotional range. Nicholas Phan has the voice and was superb in story telling and musicianship.

The surprise of the night was bass-baritone Dashon Burton, whose aria was full of righteous fury in “Falsche Welt” (“False world, your fawning kiss is poison to the soul”). Equally well sung was his duet with soprano Yulia Van Doren in one of Bach’s multi-dimensional pieces, “Welt und Himmel nehmt zu ohren” (“World and Heaven lend an ear”), which used a chorale melody, and two recorder players, both of whom played with suppleness and musicality. Burton’s voice is virile and full of brilliant colors.

The other two soloists were not as well matched. Reginald Mobley, countertenor, sang musically but unevenly, with prominent register changes. Soprano Van Doren, not given much to do, did it rather dispassionately, with little vocal color.

Other characters in the drama (Judas, Peter, Pilate, maid, et al) were very well done, ably sung by members of the choir. It’s a pity that those singers went unacknowledged, at least in the program dispensed to the audience. (OBF must provide their audiences more information. At a minimum, we should know who is singing what, and when.)

The Verdict

The answer to my second question — whether this reconstruction could approach Bach’s magnificent surviving Passions —came clear after an abundance of chorales, which dominated the choral singing here. This passion, whether or not an accurate representation of what was heard in 1731 at Leipzig, is/was no match for the construction or the array of great movements of either of the surviving passions.

Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be. The OBF program notes say “the new music for Good Friday 1731 (the St. Mark Passion) was intended to be technically less demanding than that for his St. John Passion, and to require fewer instruments than the St. Matthew.” If that’s the case, then we can perhaps be satisfied that the master never meant for this to be an equal of his earlier masterworks.

Halls and Sackmann discussed their scholarly reconstruction at a panel in Eugene.

Halls and Sackmann discussed their scholarly reconstruction at a panel in Eugene.

So what of its overall veracity? Well, no question that anyone but a neophyte would know this was Bach, without program notes or prior explanation. But would a pilgrim in search of the real thing, in the absence of that same information, think it a complete, cohesive representation of what the St. Thomas Kirche congregants heard on Good Friday of 1731? The answer must be “no.”

The chorales are surely Bach, borrowed freely from his chorale book. The recitatives were composed by Halls, based on his lengthy experience as the continuo player in many Passion performances. (This is the same approach taken by Koopman, who was also a continuo player before he was a conductor.) They are convincing in most cases. The few arias are good choices, but there is nothing like the impact, for example, of the uplifting rapid succession of arias in the St. John: alto aria ”Es ist vollbracht” (“The end has come”), bass “Mein teuer Heiland” (“My Savior give me answer”) and “Zerfliesse” (“With tears overflowing”) for soprano.

Many of the chorales are very square cut, and were directed in that way. As a listener, I sometimes felt in the midst of a Methodist service, in the strict observance of all the fermatas and thus stubbornly patterned phrases. There were a few highly interesting chorales, such as “Ich will hier bei dir sterben,” featuring one of Bach’s backward looking devices, a chorale cantus firmus in the bass part, paired with a partially independent orchestral accompaniment. But these were in the minority.

The recitatives follow all of Bach’s practices, both creative and formal. A halo of strings surrounded the voice of Jesus on all occasions. The vocal flourishes, almost a pre-requisite for Bach’s painting the emotive nouns (“cross”) and verbs (“flee,” “crucified”) and the harmonic underlays, using for instance a diminished seventh chord at “betrays,” are time-honored formulae of Bach.

The turbae (crowd choruses) were as a whole, disappointing. That there were few of them was reason enough, but I think the earlier efforts of Hellmann and Koopman were better overall. There is greater use of fugato, and the polyphony of the latter is more convincing.

On the other hand, the arias here were highly interesting, especially the aforementioned “Falsche Welt,” sung by Dashon Burton, and the tenor aria opening Part II of the work, Nicholas Phan’s terrific “Mein Troster is nicht mehr bei mir.” These were splendid choices.

But at the conclusion of the concert, I did not feel any great wash of awe pass over me. A feeling of satisfaction with the choral and vocal artistry — yes. Anything like the transcendent “being carried away by” feelings such as those most of us get after hearing any of the three great Bach pillars (B minor Mass and the two Passions) – no! Does that mean the scholarly effort should not have been made? Hardly. But another time, I would love to hear the passion of a real Passion, be it John, or Matthew, even St. Luke, after it is discovered in some moldy old archive.

Portland’s Bruce Browne led the choral programs at Portland State University for many years, and directed the Portland Symphonic Choir, Choral Cross Ties, and many other vocal groups.

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