Kagel: St. Bach Passion

Review by: ClassicsToday

Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 9

It’s no exaggeration, of course, to say that Bach is one of the most revered figures in music history. But Argentine-born IRCAM mainstay Mauricio Kagel takes that adulation to a new level by putting the composer at the center of his massive 1985 work. It’s not even that he pitches Bach as a saint, as the piece’s title suggests; rather, according to Kagel, he’s no less than a Christ figure, “hanging for decades on the cross of officials who hindered his work as a composer.” While Kagel asserts that this work is the expression of his veneration of Bach, it’s such a nutty premise–an idea that the deeply pious Bach surely would take as blasphemy–that you wonder if Kagel means the whole piece as an ironic commentary on those who look back rather than forward, or even as a parody of Bach himself.

But all indications are that this was meant as a serious piece of music. The narrative is a montage of texts concerning Bach’s life–such items as letters the composer wrote to his patrons, his wedding banns, and snippets from 17th- and 18th-century biographies. True to passion-oratorio structure, there is a high element of theater built into the piece: often the music is subservient to the text, and the character of Bach himself never sings. (Bach is played by Peter Roggisch, whose crystalline–even musical–enunciation is a delight.) Mirroring his text, Kagel’s music is a stylistic pastiche as well. While he incorporates such structural elements as chorales, recitatives, and arias, Kagel’s tonal language ranges from serialist technique to more diatonically inspired harmonies.

This recording was made two weeks after the work’s world premiere, given in Berlin in September 1985. The star turn here is provided by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, whose glittering tone (such as in the song “Tiny Little Newborn Child”) enlivens the whole enterprise. The other soloists are tenor Hans-Peter Blochwitz, whose “evangelist” role is nicely delivered, and baritone Roland Hermann, who has some noticeable trouble pushing out his bottom notes. Kagel charges his choral and instrumental forces with quite a challenging, busy score, which they handle well (though not without some harrowing pitch problems in track 10 from the children’s choir’s unnamed boy soloist). The sound is good, and the vocalists are heard remarkably clearly. Still, this is a disc only for the truly curious or for committed Kagelites, especially considering the relatively hefty price tag.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: none

MAURICIO KAGEL - Sankt-Bach-Passion

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