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Music Review

Emmanuel Music re-creates Bach’s ‘St. Mark Passion’

Did Bach compose a “St. Mark Passion”? It seems likely he did, for the Good Friday service in Leipzig in 1731. Picander’s libretto for this work (he also provided the libretto for Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion”) has survived. Bach’s score has not. Saturday at Emmanuel Church, Emmanuel Music under artistic director Ryan Turner made a brave attempt to reconstruct the piece.

Such an attempt is possible because Bach in 1731 was a busy man and not above recycling previous compositions. For the music of his “St. Mark Passion,” there is evidence that he borrowed three choruses and three arias from his 1727 “Trauerode” funeral cantata. The remaining five arias called for by the libretto can be drawn from cantatas that Bach had composed before 1731. The 16 chorales — existing hymn tunes that Bach harmonized — can be identified from their texts. And one can fill in the Gospel narrative with recitatives from the “St. Mark Passion” of Bach’s contemporary Reinhard Keiser, a piece Bach had performed in Leipzig. Turner’s reconstruction, which draws on the work of Harvard professor Christoph Wolff, adds some recitatives written in the Keiser style by Bach scholar Simon Heighes.

The result as performed Saturday by Emmanuel Music sounded like a Passion from 1731, if not specifically like a Bach Passion. At 115 minutes (excluding intermission), it was the same length as Bach’s “St. John Passion.” The eight arias, each sung by a different member of the chorus, had little impact; some seemed oddly curtailed. Jason McStoots was an engaging Evangelist, precise in both enunciation and in his attention to the meaning of the text, and Mark McSweeney was a human and often frustrated Jesus. Between them, they re-created the down-to-earth drama of Mark’s Gospel. All the same, the music was Keiser and not Bach.

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That left the chorales, whose texts often speak directly to Jesus. Although diction was at times slack, the rich harmonies came through, as well as the many moods. The orchestra was particularly beautiful in “Ich will hier bei dir stehen,” the chorus that ends the first part of the work. The opening and closing choruses, both from the “Trauerode,” provided this reconstruction with an authentic frame; it would certainly be a shame never to hear Picander’s text for the final chorus, where the singers tell Jesus, “My life springs from your death.” Bach or not, it would be hard to reconstruct a better “St. Mark Passion,” and Emmanuel’s version was well worth hearing.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.