In addition to the two well-known passions by JS Bach (the ones based on the gospels according to St Matthew and St John) there’s also the Passion according to St Mark that we know to have been performed at least twice in Bach’s lifetime. Although the complete musical score has been lost, the availability of the libretto makes it possible to reconstruct the work, BWV 247.
Today I experienced an overwhelming performance at lovely St Barnabas Church, of the St Mark Passion in the reconstruction by Simon Heighes (1995), a preview of what will be presented by the Second Annual Bach Festival on May 28th. And it was overwhelming because I was seated in the front row, a few feet from the tiny orchestra and the soloists, surrounded in the luxurious sounds of some of the best singers & players in this country.
If you have any curiosity about this work, if you have the desire to hear good singing & playing, you must take advantage of the opportunity in May. The intimacy of the music requires a space like this one, where you can hear every note clearly, where you can make eye contact with performers wearing their hearts on their sleeves. There are three concerts in the series featuring the vocal talents of Brett Polegato, Asitha Tennekoon, Daniel Taylor (indisposed today unfortunately), Ellen McAteer, Agnes Zsigovics, Jan van der Hooft, Ryan Cairan, Jessica Wright and Larry Beckwith; and an orchestra comprised of Julia Wedman, Patricia Ahern, Emily Eng, Matt Antal, Felix Deak, Matthew Girolami, Joëlle Morton, Marilyn Fung, Christopher Bagan, Marco Cera, Alison Melville, Anthea Conway-White and directed by oboist John Abberger. I mention them all because everyone had moments of great beauty. In a work played by such a small ensemble, there were exposed passages giving everyone their moment to shine.
Some of the music is familiar, although I don’t know whether it’s Bach’s choice in the original or Heighes’ in his reconstruction, to re-purpose music that we’ve heard before elsewhere. I recognized a couple, for instance, the tune we sing as the Passion Chorale but to different words. We also encounter JS Bach’s setting of Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”, based not on Mark but Psalm 46, so I’m not sure how that manages to get into the piece: even if it’s guaranteed to turn on the waterworks when I hear it sung so perfectly.
The two singers with the largest workload soldiered along without much glory until near the end. Both Asitha Tennekoon as the Evangelist and Brett Polegato as Jesus have large amounts to sing, but mostly in soft recitatives. But in the second part, each gets an aria and it’s worth the wait. The sopranos McAteer and Szigovics soar gloriously throughout the afternoon both from the chorus, and then emerging for their own solo fireworks.
Don’t miss the opportunity to hear the St Mark Passion when it comes again May 28th.