This is an important Op. 100, a humbling example of our ignorance of composers
from other lands.
Kjell Mørk Karlsen (b. 1947) determined to become a musician after
hearing the Matthew Passion when he was 11. He chose the St John Gospel as
more suitable for chamber-musical treatment, 'fantastically concentrated,
a towering drama etched with the simplest materials'. The narration is
shared between choir and tenor Evangelist. Peter and Pilate are sung by tenor
and baritone respectively, Jesus himself by three singers, alto and two basses.
The instrumental support is by two oboes, two cellos and organ, that is all.
The organ is used sparingly, but to telling effect. The idiom is redolent
of chant, chorales and folk-tunes absorbed in contemporary harmonic language,
polyphonic and singable, with tight harmonies and a dissonant register.
Stravinsky's Mass comes to mind. The original notes for the 1992 premiere
describe it as 'a work that embodies great contrasts - - bare, ascetic
resonances evoked by the little instrumental ensemble an effective antipode
to the dramatic swell of organ and choir'. It plays in a single span,
a long choral movement interrupted by solo commentaries and chamber-musical
meditations, brilliantly paced to convey an explosive atmosphere, enervation
contrasting with a sense of catastrophe. The most extended section is the
final 11 minute qui passus est and Amen, which culminates in
a shriek of protest.
The Norwegian performance is inspiring and the 1997 recording in Bergen's
Biskovan Church captures superbly its intensity. The booklet names every
participant and has an interesting, informative commentary by Olav Aune under
the title A passion for the half-hearted. A timely release during
this special Bach year. I hope that Karlsen's St John Passion will
be taken up in UK.
Peter Grahame Woolf