David Weininger, Boston Globe, March 17, 2016
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s famous obituary for his father, Johann Sebastian, contains a brief resume of the elder musician’s works; to read through it is to feel extreme injustice at the treasures now gone. Reference is made to five cycles of church cantatas, two of which are lost, and five Passion settings, only two of which — the St. Matthew and the St. John — survived history’s vicissitudes.
Attempts have been made over the decades to reconstruct — partially or in full — works for which at least trace remnants exist. A new foray in this vein comes on Saturday, when Emmanuel Music performs a version of Bach’s lost “St. Mark Passion” woven together from various sources by the ensemble’s artistic director, Ryan Turner.
The idea, Turner said in a phone interview, arose from his broader conception for Emmanuel’s season, of revisiting Bach in unusual ways. He shied away from calling his version a “reconstruction,” having drawn largely on the work of others, including Harvard professor Christoph Wolff, perhaps the English-speaking world’s leading Bach authority.
“It’s more in some ways of a pastiche,” Turner said, “which is in some ways in the spirit of what Bach did.”
The archeology of the “St. Mark Passion” is fragmentary and fraught with historical pitfalls, so scholars and musicians (and journalists, for that matter) must step carefully. No music survives, only a libretto drawn from the Gospel of Mark for a Good Friday Passion in 1731 by Picander, librettist for the Matthew Passion. Scholarship has largely settled that the music was by Bach, and that in composing it he repurposed a 1727 funeral cantata known as the “Trauerode” (BWV 198). It’s a piece Turner holds in high regard, so “that gave me something I could grab onto,” he said.
Additionally, there is a record of Bach having conducted a different version of the piece in 1747, including recitatives by Reinhard Keiser, a contemporary of Bach’s known largely for his operas, and, astonishingly, seven arias imported from Handel’s “Brockes Passion.” Again, no music survives. But the pastiche aspect inspired Turner, who began to create the Emmanuel version in that spirit.
Turner examined other reconstructions of the Mark Passion, seeing how others had filled the gaps with material from Bach’s work and elsewhere. And he worked closely with Wolff, who functioned as an artistic adviser, consulting on the plausibility and fit of Turner’s choices.
The result is a hybrid. The arias come from various cantatas and the “Trauerode,” which also provides the opening and closing choruses. Many of the recitatives come from Keiser’s “St. Mark Passion,” but because his version begins at the Mount of Olives, well after Picander’s starting point, they are augmented by recitatives composed in Keiser’s style by musicologist Simon Heighes for his own reconstruction. The crowd (or turba) choruses likewise are drawn from Keiser and from Bach’s cantatas.
The chorales are Bach’s own, and there are 16: more than in either the Matthew or John Passions. “What that tells me is that this piece is about the people,” Turner explained. “The chorales are the way to personalize [the story] and bring it directly to the congregation, with tunes they knew.”
It’s reasonable to ask why such a project is worthwhile, given the number of historical lacunae and the radical uncertainty that bedevils all efforts to fill them. One reason, Turner said, was to have a vehicle for Picander’s libretto. “This is sort of what might have been,” he said. “Otherwise, there’s this incredible text which would have just lain dormant.”
Turner also wanted to have an at least nominally Bachian St. Mark Passion to set beside the works drawn from Matthew and John because of the vastly different portraits of Jesus etched in each Gospel, a point of special fascination for him. “In John, Jesus is incredibly divine and omniscient, never takes a wrong step, and there’s a sense that everything is according to plan. Then we see Matthew’s Jesus, which is all about the building of community.
“And then Mark’s Jesus — it’s a colloquial word, but he’s like the blue-collar Jesus,” he continued. “He has flaws, and we get to see all of them. “We see him lose his temper. We see him get angry. He’s vulnerable. He’s kind of your everyman in a way. And I thought, what a perfect work — here’s a work of Bach that has flaws and unknowns, and that’s who Jesus is.” Adams in the Arboretum
In a major addition to Boston’s contemporary music offerings, John Luther Adams’s large-scale percussion work “Inuksuit” will be performed at the Arnold Arboretum on June 12. The event, to be presented free of charge, is the brainchild of crusading percussionist/entrepreneur Maria Finkelmeier. Her organization, Kadence Arts, is hosting a fund-raising concert for the “Inuksuit” performance on March 24 at the Arboretum’s Weld Hill Research Center. Tickets are $50; for details, go to www.kadencearts.org.
Emmanuel Music: “St. Mark Passion”
At Emmanuel Church, March 19 at 8 p.m. Tickets: $10-$150. 617-536-3356, www.emmanuelmusic.org
David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @davidgweininger.