Bach: St. Mark Passion / Willens, Horwitz, Amarcord

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Excellently presented and performed … Bach collectors and lovers of sacred music should not hesitate. This impressive live recording of the St. Mark Passion, BWV...
Excellently presented and performed … Bach collectors and lovers of sacred music should not hesitate.

This impressive live recording of the St. Mark Passion, BWV 247 forms part of the Carus label’s series of recordings ‘ Music from the Frauenkirche Dresden’. Fittingly I received this release - an account of Jesus’s Passion based on the Gospel of Mark - during Lent in time for Easter. Founded in the eleventh century the Dresden Frauenkirche was burnt out and destroyed as a result of Allied bombing in February 1945. After decades of inactivity extensive reconstruction work commenced in 1992. The work in the interior and organ was finally completed in 2005 when the restored Frauenkirche was consecrated.

Just as the Frauenkirche Dresden was reconstructed so was the St. Mark Passion. Bach’s obituary from 1750 claimed that he had written five passions. Only the St. John Passion (1724) and the St. Matthew Passion (1727) have survived in their entirety. The St. Mark Passion was known to have been first performed on Good Friday 1731 at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. It seems that Bach’s score of the St. Mark Passion was at one time held under the stewardship of his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. Virtually all of the music is now lost and only two printed copies of the Picander texts were known. In 2009 another printed copy of the text was found in St. Petersburg, Russia containing two additional arias. Over the years there have been several attempts to reconstruct the music to the St. Mark Passion. Notably Dietmar Hellmann realised a version of the score in 1964. This adaptation for Carus of the St. Mark Passion directed by Michael Alexander Willens has been prepared by Bach scholar Andreas Glöckner based on Dietmar Hellmann’s reconstruction.

Unity is provided in the reconstructed score to the St. Mark Passion by the often repeated use of familiar chorale melodies. Probably best known for its use in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 and the St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 is Hans Leo Hassler’s well known hymn tune Herzlich tut mich Erlangen which is employed here on three of the tracks. Also used is the famous chorale melody attributed to Martin Luther Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott that Bach used in his cantata BWV 80 of the same name. 
Vocal ensemble Amarcord was founded in 1992 originally by former male members of the St. Thomas Church choir in Leipzig. On this Carus recording of the St. Mark Passion Amarcord use nine soloists who also perform the choir parts. Normally Amarcord consist of five male voices: Wolfram Lattke (tenor); Martin Lattke (tenor); Frank Osijek (baritone); Daniel Knauft (bass) and Holger Krause (bass). For this project and some other projects with music by Heinrich Schütz and his contemporaries the ensemble are augmented by four guest female singers: Anja Zügner (soprano); Dorothea Wagner (soprano); Clare Wilkinson (alto) and Silvia Janak (alto). Under their talented music director Michael Alexander Willens the fifteen strong Die Kölner Akademie (The Cologne Academy) perform Bach’s late-baroque music on instruments appropriate to the period.

Bach recordings using large-scale forces on modern instruments were the norm in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s but are far less common today. A particular favourite Bach interpreter of sacred music is Karl Richter who in the period 1958/75 released over seventy cantatas for Archiv Produktion. Only the most passionate of authenticists would fail to acknowledge the distinction of these recordings. In addition Richter’s older contemporary and fellow countryman the conductor Fritz Werner recorded around 60 cantatas in the 1950s-1970s for Erato. I have enjoyed the splendid and passionate 1973/74 account of the Bach Mass in B Minor, BWV 232 from Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Wiener Singverein with a stellar cast of soloists on Deutsche Grammophon 459 4602. Following the tradition of using large-scale forces there are several other recordings that I admire especially the recordings from the 1950s and 1960s from conductors Carlo Maria Giulini/BBC Legends and Otto Klemperer/EMI.  

Michael Alexander Willens’ historically informed approach to Bach’s sacred choral music is in the spirit of the authentic performance style that quickly became fashionable and began to take centre-stage around the 1980s. Hearing the finest of these period instrument performances can persuade even the most diehard traditionalist that smaller forces can provide considerable advantages. With their intimate and lean approach to performing Bach the very finest of the period instrument exponents provide glorious clear tones, crisp and clear articulation with eloquent phrasing and rhythmic control. Probably the best known authentic instrument specialists performing Bach today are Harry Christophers/Caro; Paul McCreesh/Deutsche Grammophon; John Eliot Gardiner/Archiv Produktion and Soli Deo Gloria; Masaaki Suzuki/BIS; Andrew Parrott/Virgin; Sigiswald Kuijken/Challenge Classics and Philippe Herreweghe/Harmonia Mundi.

The relatively spare resources that Willens employs here in the St. Mark Passion reminds me of a similar approach taken by director Paul McCreesh with his nine vocalists and twenty-seven strong Gabrieli Players on their marvellous recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on Deutsche Grammophon 474 200-2. Recorded in 2002 at Roskilde Cathedral, McCreesh using single voices to a part divides his vocal soloists who divide the choir into two and his Gabrieli Players are split too. Another period instrument specialist favouring a scaled down approach is Andrew Parrott and his Taverner Consort and Players on their highly successful account of the St. John Passion on Virgin Veritas 5 62019 2. Parrott who recorded the score in 1990 at Abbey Road, London with two voices to a part employs just eleven solo singers to form the choir with the use of additional boys’ voices.

Although compact the vocal forces of Willens, McCreesh and Parrott should not be underestimated. They are eminently characterful and can convey a real potency. In reality these directors probably employ a larger number of singers and players than the resources that Bach could afford and usually had available to him. For Willens the recitatives and choral responses are expertly narrated by actor Dominique Horwitz as the Evangelist who is placed in a slightly over-resonant location at the Dresden Frauenkirche. I did find it hard to get used to the concept of spoken recitatives and choral responses. A far more satisfactory effect is achieved by both Paul McCreesh/Deutsche Grammophon in the St. Matthew Passion and Andrew Parrott/Virgin Veritas in the St. John Passion who use sung recitatives with basso continuo accompaniment with responses from the choir. John Eliot Gardiner’s period instrument account of the St. Matthew Passion from 1988 at Snape Maltings for Archiv Produktion also uses sung recitatives with basso continuo and a chorus for the responses.  

Michael Alexander Willens is in total sympathy with the music and directs his orchestral and choral forces with significant effect. Most impressive is the crisp and sensitive playing from the period instrument ensemble Die Kölner Akademie. In the choruses Willens obtains consistently glorious singing from the augmented vocal ensemble Amarcord. High on expression and reverential character the balance of the nine strong choir never cries out for increased weight. Overall the blend between the vocal forces and the instrumental accompaniment feels just right. I think placing the woodwind a touch further forward in the balance would have been preferable.

Of the cast of soloists alto Clare Wilkinson performs both Mein Heiland, dich vergeß ich nicht! ( My Saviour, I’ll forget thee not!) and Falsche Welt, dein schmeichelnd Küssen ( Untrue world, thy fawning kisses). Her two arias are excellent vehicles for the alto to demonstrate her attractively creamy and flexible timbre. Singing with dutiful distinction in Falsche Welt the smoothness of her long vocal line is striking. In the soprano aria Er kommt, er kommt, er ist vorhanden! ( He comes, he comes, he is now present!) I enjoyed Dorothea Wagner’s bright and fresh tones with excellent diction and piety. It would be remiss not to mention the delightful violin playing from leader Pauline Nobes.

Wolfram Lattke performs his aria Mein Tröster ist nicht mehr bey mir ( My Helper is no more with me) with appropriate regard for the sacred text. The tenor felt especially comfortable when under pressure in his high register but I was less than enamoured with his trait for ‘r’ rolling. Notable is the violin playing from Pauline Nobes that prefaces the aria Welt und Himmel nehmt zu Ohren ( World and Heaven, O now Hearken). The smooth, light creamy timbre of soprano Anja Zügner is most attractive. She seems most secure and happiest at the top of her range. 

This is a live recording from Dresden Frauenkirche. I couldn’t hear any significant audience noise and there is no applause at the conclusion of the score. The Frauenkirche acoustic has a noticeable if slight reverberation but nothing to detract from the pleasure and the agreeably clear sound. This excellently presented and performed release of the St. Mark’s Passion from Carus includes a fine and informative essay together with full German texts with English translations. Bach collectors and lovers of sacred music should not hesitate.

-- Michael Cookson, MusicWeb International 

Product Description:

  • Release Date: July 13, 2010

  • UPC: 409350832444

  • Catalog Number: CV83244

  • Label: Carus

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach

  • Conductor: Michael Alexander Willens

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Amarcord, Cologne Academy

  • Performer: Dominique Horwitz


  1. Saint Mark Passion, BWV 247

    Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach

    Ensemble: Amarcord, Cologne Academy

    Performer: Dominique Horwitz (Narrator)

    Conductor: Michael Alexander Willens