Lost Passion

The better Bach: The Westminster Symphonic Choir and the American Boychoir performing St. John Passion.Photo: Chris Lee

Has it been only fifteen years since the music world staged its last global bash honoring Johann Sebastian Bach? That marked the 300th anniversary of the composer’s birth, yet here we are again, 250 years after his death, celebrating harder than ever. Lincoln Center has been doing its part, sponsoring numerous concert-and-lecture events starring a host of Bach specialists, along with a film series featuring archival footage of important Bach interpreters from the past century. The festivities continue this month, with a seasonal focus on the great man’s musical settings of the Crucifixion story. Only two complete scores survive, Passions based on the Gospel accounts of Matthew and John, but Lincoln Center stirred up a bit of controversy by presenting a third in the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola: the St. Mark Passion, as reconstructed by the Dutch organist-conductor Ton Koopman.

Bach did indeed compose a St. Mark Passion, and presided over a performance on Good Friday, 1731, but the score disappeared after his death and is presumed permanently lost. The full text survives, however, together with indications of how the composer may have treated it. That has been enough encouragement for itchy musicologists, and Koopman’s version is only the latest of several attempts to create a viable performing edition. For the meditative arias and extended choruses, Bach apparently planned to adapt preexisting music from his cantatas, a parody procedure he often used and one that Koopman, too, has adopted to make his realization. He also drew on Bach’s many four-part chorale harmonizations to supply the congregational hymns that appear at key moments in the score. As for the narrative element involving the Evangelist, Jesus, Pilate, and other characters in the drama, Koopman had no choice but to compose that music himself, taking corresponding passages in Bach’s other Passions for his model.

As heard on the new Erato recording (8573-80221-2) performed by Koopman’s Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Orchestra, the work is nothing if not a clever pastiche by a practical musician with a deep knowledge of Bach style. At the same time, this “new” Passion sounds peculiarly characterless and uninvolving, a score that any minor Baroque composer might have produced, despite occasional flashes of authentic Bach. No surprise about that. This is hardly the same as working with the existing materials of an unfinished piece and filling in the blanks. Puccini’s Turandot or Mahler’s Tenth Symphony would surely have turned out differently had the composers lived to complete their scores, but what they did leave justifies sensitive editing in order for us to hear it. Since we really haven’t a clue as to how Bach’s own St. Mark Passion might have sounded, this cobbled-together curio seems pointless.

The differences between a copy and the real thing were apparent from the first notes of the New York Philharmonic’s recent performances of Bach’s St. John Passion in Avery Fisher Hall. The St. John may lack the diversity and grandeur of the composer’s more elaborate St. Matthew, but this dramatic account of Christ’s death and resurrection has a tautly drawn, almost operatic character that begins in deep anguish before gradually yielding to consolation. That was the spirit in which Kurt Masur presented his interpretation, eloquently communicated by the orchestra – even the most adamant authentic-instrument purists must have been impressed by such exquisite playing, especially from the first-desk musicians. Unfortunately, the vocal soloists were disappointing. Peter Schreier can still remind us that he was once an incomparable Evangelist, but the tenor arias are now beyond his reach. Hakan Hagegard and Siegfried Lorenz also sounded worn, while Heidi Grant Murphy and Marietta Simpson were competent at best. The most compelling singing came from the American Boychoir and Westminster Symphonic Choir.

Three complete cycles of Wagner’s mighty Ring epic at the Metropolitan are monopolizing most operagoers’ attention at the moment, but Francophiles have been having a good month, too, with Rameau’s Platée at the City Opera, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at the Met, and Hérold’s Zampa at L’Opéra Français de New York – three contrasting French scores from three different centuries, each in its different way celebrating the distinctive Gallic virtues of economy, precision, musical elegance, and verbal refinement.

The Rameau and Debussy operas are encountered with some frequency, but all that survives of Zampa nowadays is its overture, and even the popularity of that pop-concert staple has waned. During most of the 1800s, though, the work was performed throughout Europe, a delicious example of French opéra comique at its high noon. First seen in 1831, Zampa owes much to Auber’s Fra Diavolo, which preceded Hérold’s charmer by a year and still occasionally turns up. Both feature a fetching soprano pursued by two tenors, one poor but honest and the other a dashing libertine-outlaw. Virtue wins, of course, and the oversexed Sicilian pirate Zampa finally gets his comeuppance when the statue of a girl he once betrayed comes to life and crushes the rotter to death, as Mount Etna, signaling nature’s approval, stages a spectacular eruption.

Hérold may not have had Auber’s easy melodic gift, but his score is just as tuneful and in some ways even more sophisticated, full of craftily developed ensemble numbers – picture Rossini halfway to Offenbach with just a dash of early Verdi. This music could sound dangerously unfocused unless lovingly coaxed to life by a conductor who understands the genre and its stylistic requirements – a conductor like Yves Abel, who presided over an exemplary performance characterized by lyrical grace, instrumental transparency, a buoyant lilt and dramatic thrust. The three principal singers were also first-rate: Tracey Welborn, a virile Zampa with the requisite coloratura technique; Charles Reid, an ideal romantic foil with a pleasingly soft-grained lyric tenor; and Isabel Bayrakdarian, whose sweetly textured, perfectly tuned soprano makes her an irresistible opéra comique heroine. Appearing as Hérold himself, Alexander Herold provided a rather witless narration, a minor irritant in an otherwise delightful evening.

Lost Passion