IN: Reviews

Wolff’s Hybrid St. Mark Passion


bachwwwThe headline from Emmanuel Church reads “Bach Reconstructed—J. S. Bach: St. Mark Passion, BWV 247.” If you are looking in from the outside, the comments of Music Director Ryan Turner would point you in the right direction. “Fully aware that no reconstruction of a lost Bach work can ever equal what the composer himself actually wrote…”  We are also informed that one of the foremost Bach scholars, Harvard’s Christoph Wolff, with other scholars assisting, prepared Emmanuel’s version of Bach’s third passion.

Was it Bach? My answer comes in today’s vernacular, kinda Bach. First off, because there were various contributors to this hybrid passion, listeners had some leeway in coming to term with this reconstruction. All in all, Wolff’s St. Mark intrigued this Bach devotee.

On the Saturday evening before Palm Sunday, this Passion tempted attention away from the spiritual to the investigatory.  Did this passion seem Evangelist heavy? Did few other than the very opening chorus (“Go Jesus, go to your suffering!”) feel sizable enough? Nearly half of the chorales were well-known.

Wolff might be addressing these observations, writing, “Mark’s biography of Jesus is simple, direct, human, and immediate, in the present tense with scant commentary, juxtaposing few scenes, and minimal crowd participation.”

It was, though, vintage music-making from Turner, soloists, chorus and orchestra. Jason McStoots carried out the yeoman’s part of the Evangelist with an extraordinary range of expression. Over much of the two hours, McStoots’s voiced a resolute and absorbing storyteller. His absolutely understandable enunciation conveyed the illusion of an actor in a compelling monodrama. While he could summon fieriness or grief, his highly attractive tenor tones could not have been more ear-catching, whether in high or low tessitura.

The exquisite continuo of Rafael Popper-Keizer and Michael Beattie refreshed over and again; whether in a solid supporting stance or one promoting brief expressive commentary.

Most of the way, the well-suited proportions of both chorus and orchestra created good balance as well as spaciousness for the music to breathe through both harmonic and contrapuntal textures. Often, in the chorales, Turner marshaled vitality then, in the final lines, hushed the chorus to pleading compliance. With Bach—or here, also, along with his stand-ins—Turner opts for dynamical elucidation. Word painting is a phrase that oft describes a move such as that taken by Turner in “Jesus, without sin.” The chorale begins f then concludes with a p for the words “then let us, o friend of humanity!/ through this find release.”

Taking the role of Jesus, bass Mark McSweeney portrayed seriousness and weightiness that tended to slow the tempo of this St. Mark version. Toward the end, he hit upon deep emotion in “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Christoph Wolf (file photo)
Christoph Wolff (file photo)

Aria soloists highlights: sustained notes turned reverent with Pamela Dellal; every word passionately rang out with Frank Kelly; bright, urgent phrasing delivered by Kendra Colton; intense resounding of “your flattering kisses/are poison” from Margaret Lias built over orchestral pedal; evenness of lines and consoling delivery sung by Charles Blandy; a dynamic esprit issued forth from Deborah Rentz-Moore; acutely spiritual tones of Susan Consoli in duet with violinist Heidi Braun-Hill transported; and the unwavering Baroque paths were taken with heart by David Tinervia.

Rounds of applause led to a standing ovation from a fairly good-sized community of Bach enthusiasts.

A review of a St. Mark Passion given at King’s Chapel one year ago is here. That performance was well under the two hours performance time at Emmanuel. The main reason is that only arias and chorales were sung, the rest of the passion story was read aloud.  A YouTube link to a reconstructed St. Mark by the Amsterdam Choir and Orchestra conducted and reconstructed by by Ton Koopman is here.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

Comments Off on Wolff’s Hybrid St. Mark Passion