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Fanfare Magazine: 43:1 (09-10/2019) 
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Reviewer: James A. Altena

Back in 38:2, in a dual review of sets conducted by Jörg Breiding (Rondeau) and Ton Koopman (Apex), I offered a comprehensive overview of the history of some 22 different reconstructions of Bach’s lost St. Mark Passion, and of the 16 (possibly 17) extant recordings made from them up to that date. Of those, I eliminated from serious contention all but three recordings—those conducted by Roy Goodman (Brilliant Classics), Geoffrey Webber (ASV, nla), and Breiding—plus the totally idiosyncratic but nonetheless brilliant reconstruction by Koopman. Then, in 39:1, I reviewed the premiere recording, conducted by Markus Teutschbein, of yet another new reconstruction, made by Alexander Grychtolik. Based on a newly discovered (2009) 1744 revision of the original 1731 libretto, this latest version adds two more arias, along with relocations of some previous chorales and arias and other modifications of the previous text. Since then, two other recordings have appeared, which I did not receive for review: a 2016 set from Coviello Classics conducted by Peter Uehling, and a 2018 release by Christophorus led by Felix Koch. Both choose to speak the recitatives rather than set them to music, which for me immediately ruled them out of further consideration, whereas Teutschbein is also a top choice.


This new recording employs the Grychtolik version for its basis, albeit with a “complete revision” by Jordi Savall; the brief booklet essay provides basic details, but does not specify exactly what, where, and how Savall made his revisions. As with Grychtolik, the basis for the reconstruction remains the BWV 198 Trauerode, supplemented by arias adapted from Cantatas BWV 2, 54, 171, and 173, plus the St. John Passion; chorales and choruses from the St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion, the Christmas Oratorio, and various cantatas; and recitative borrowed primarily from the St. Matthew Passion. The results remain, as before, something of a mixed bag. Using music entirely by Bach is, I think, preferable to the alternative solutions—speaking the text without a musical setting, employing recitative from Reinhold Keiser’s St. Mark Passion, or composing original recitatives from scratch, either in imitation of Bach or (with invariably ghastly results) in a modern musical idiom—with Koopman’s brilliantly authentic-sounding original recitatives (the man sounds as if he is channeling Bach!) being the exception that proves the rule. But even so, hearing familiar passages of recitative from the St. Matthew Passion placed in a decidedly different context remains somewhat jarring. To his credit, Savall—being the masterful exponent of early music that he is—makes it work more smoothly and convincingly than does Teutschbein, though the latter is no slouch.


The choral and instrumental forces sing and play for Savall with evident commitment and passion. The two recordings are very different in another way: Whereas Teutschbein uses his forces in a crisply recorded studio setting that imparts lightness and transparency, Savall evokes a far richer, one might even say opulent, instrumental sound with forces in a more reverberant acoustical setting. Remarkably, the two conductors achieve their respective aims in inverse relation to the sizes of their performing ensembles: 24 instrumentalists and 72 choristers for Teutschbein, versus only 19 instrumentalists and 25 choristers for Savall. The results are so different that a comparison between them is more like listening to two entirely different works, rather than two different versions of a single work. Each one has a good deal to be said for it, and I cannot say in the end that one is better than the other in these regards.


Unfortunately, Savall’s otherwise remarkable realization of this piece suffers from a serious deficiency in the form of sub-standard vocal soloists. As the Evangelist, David Szigetvári is solid, even commendable, but he is palpably inferior to David Johannsen for Teutschbein; the same holds true for soprano Marta Mathéu compared to Gudrun Sidonie Otto, tenor Renoud van Mechelen to Johanssen in the tenor arias, and to a lesser extent for countertenor Raffaele Pé in contrast to Terry Wey. Still, the differences here are arguably made up for by Savall’s more dynamic leadership of the whole. But the fatal flies in the ointment come with the bass voices. Konstantin Wolff as Jesus is simply awful: dry-toned, raspy, unsteady, and with no proper sense of the interpretive requirements of his role. While Hanno Müller-Brachmann under Teutschbein is not ideal, he is more than competent and vastly preferable. Likewise, the various comprimario bass parts—Judas Iscariot, Peter, Pilate, the High Priest, the Centurion—are rendered for Savall by various but equally deficient basses (drawn from his chorus, where they do well enough instead), whereas Teutschbein enjoys luxury casting in assigning all of these (except Judas) to the first-rate Stephan MacLeod, who also gets to sing an aria (“Welt und Himmel”) that Savall assigns to the tenor and chorus instead in an entirely different (and most lovely) musical setting.


As usual with Alia Vox releases of Savall’s recordings, this set comes with a lavish booklet (274 pages), with numerous color photos and texts in French, English, Spanish, Catalan, German, and Italian. (The English texts are on pages 56–93; the track titles and timings, and the cast and recording information are on pages 6–12). What I had expected and hoped to be a clear recommendation for a new first choice among recordings of the St. Mark Passion is instead only a conditional recommendation: Get this for Savall, if you are prepared to bear with some sub-standard vocal soloists, but also have Teutschbein (or, for a somewhat different take, Breiding) on your shelf as well. And by all means make sure you have Koopman’s version; for all the criticisms of it as an inauthentic realization that flies in the face of the scholarly consensus over the pieces Bach recycled to create his St. Mark Passion, as both music and liturgical drama it works superbly and is utterly convincing.

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