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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Brockes-Passion (HWV 48)

[I] Ana Maria Labin, Johannette Zomer, soprano; David Erler, alto; Rupert Charlesworth, Sebastian Kohlhepp, tenor; Tobias Berndt, baritone
NDR Chor; FestspielOrchester Göttingen
Dir: Laurence Cummings
rec: May 25, 2017 (live), Göttingen, Stadthalle
Accent - ACC 26411 (2 CDs) (© 2019) (2.31'28")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[II] Ruby Hughes, Philippa Hyde, Elizabeth Watts, soprano; Rachael Lloyd, contralto; Tim Mead, alto; Gwilym Bowen, Robert Murray, Nicky Spence, tenor; Morgan Pearse, Cody Quattlebaum, bass
Orchestra and Choir of the Academy of Ancient Music
Dir: Richard Egarr
rec: April 11, 17 & 18, 2019, London, Henry Wood Hall; April 19, 2019, London, Barbican Hall
Academy of Ancient Music - AAM007 (3 CDs) (© 2019) (2.28'52" / 25'13")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

[III] Maria Keohane, Joanne Lunn, Hanna Zumsande, soprano; Daniel Carlsson, Daniel Elgersma, alto; Gwilym Bowen, Ed Lyon, tenor; Peter Harvey, Jakob Bloch Jespersen, bass
Concerto Copenhagen
Dir: Lars Ulrik Mortensen
rec: Jan 14 - 19, 2019, Copenhagen, Garnisonskirke
CPO - 555 286-2 (2 CDs) (© 2019) (2.32'20")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet


Sometimes one wonders why all of a sudden a particular piece of music is the subject of several recordings, whereas it was hardly given any attention before. In the case of Handel's Brockes-Passion, the reason seems to be that it was first performed in 1719, three hundred years before the year the three recordings under review here, came on the market. Only Richard Egarr explicitly refers to this event. However, considering the popularity of Handel's music, one wonders why such a commemoration is needed for a recording of this oratorio. Egarr's recording comes with an opulent booklet, which includes a list of previous recordings. The first was directed by August Wenzinger (DGG/Archiv, 1967), but as the text was 'modernized' and those elements were removed which were typical of the 18th century and were considered not going down with a 'modern' audience, one can probably not take it that seriously. That is entirely different with the two next recordings, both on period instruments, directed by Nicholas McGegan (Hungaroton, 1985, reissued by Brilliant Classics) and Peter Neumann (Carus, 2010) respectively. Not in the list is a DVD production by the Apollo Ensemble (2018). Three recordings of an oratorio by one of the main composers of the baroque era - that's rather unimpressive.

Let's first have a look at the Brockes Passion, originally entitled - translated in English - "Jesus who was martyred and died for the sins of the world, presented in verse out of the four Evangelists". Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747) had been educated in law and philosophy and travelled across Europe before settling in Hamburg where he led a relatively prosperous life. He was strongly attracted to the Enlightenment and stood in close contact with their representatives. He was the author of the texts which Handel set to music in his German Arias. The libretto of the Brockes Passion was published in 1714. It is a specimen of a relatively new genre: the Passion oratorio. In contrast to the oratorio Passion (the best-known examples of which are those by Johann Sebastian Bach), the Passion oratorio does not include the biblical text but rather a paraphrase of the texts in the four gospels. This paraphrase is put into the mouth of the Evangelist, but he plays a less prominent role than in the oratorio Passion. There are large sections where the various characters in turn report about the course of events and express their personal feelings in arias; one of them is Jesus. There are also two symbolic characters, Tochter Zion (Daughter of Zion) and Gläubige Seele (the Faithful Soul). The former has most of the arias and is scored for soprano whereas the latter is variably scored for soprano, tenor and bass.

The first composer who set the Brockes Passion was Reinhard Keiser (1712). He was followed by Georg Philipp Telemann (1716), Handel (1716?) and Johann Mattheson (1718). It is not known why Handel took up the challenge of setting this text. Obviously, it was completely useless for performance in England, considering its German text. The four composers knew each other well, as Keiser, Mattheson and Handel had been involved in performances of the Oper am Gänsemarkt in Hamburg, and Telemann was a personal friend of Handel. Maybe he was invited by Mattheson, who may have had a kind of competition in mind. He organized a cycle of performances of the respective settings in 1719. Ruth Smith, in her liner-notes to Richard Egarr's recording, comes up with another interesting explanation. The British Hanoverian monarchy had just survived a Jacobite rebellion (1715), intended to restore the Stuart monarchy. Could Handel have considered that it was appropriate to prepare for a possible return of the Hanoverians to Germany? In that case, it could be useful to have some credentials in the composition of German sacred music.

The four composers used slightly different versions of the libretto. Handel set the revision of 1713, but treated it with much liberty, as he partly ignored Brockes' indications of form (recitative and aria) or scoring (voice types). The instrumental scoring is for oboes, bassoons, strings and basso continuo. Mattheson characterised the Passion oratorio as 'sacred opera', and that is certainly a good description of Handel's setting. It is hardly suprising that he used material from this Passion in later years for some of his English oratorios. The text is set in a very expressive way, not only for the voice but also for the instruments. Two arias are given to Jesus, another feature of the Passion oratorio. These two - 'Mein Vater, schau wie ich' and 'Ist's möglich, dass dein Zorn', which have the same musical material and are interspersed by a recitative - are introduced by dramatic chords of the strings. Descending chords lead to Peter's aria 'Schau, ich fall' in strenger Busse': "See, I fall on my knees at your feet as a penance". A kind of operatic dialogue is the scene in Gethsemane, when Jesus urges his disciples to stay awake. Also reminding of opera are the rage arias; there are no less than four in this oratorio. Handel's setting was received well: in the fifteen years following the premiere, at least thirteen performances are documented. Johann Sebastian Bach performed it in Leipzig in 1746.

As far as recording Handel's Brockes Passion is concerned, we have here three recordings which in some ways are different as a result of various sources. This subject is discussed in the AAM booklet, which also includes a list of all the available sources. Egarr's recording opens with a sinfonia, which is identical with the vivace from the Concerto grosso op. 3 No. 2. In the recordings by Mortensen and Cummings, the sinfonia is much shorter. The opening chorus is also different. The original text has "Mich vom Stricke meiner Sünden zu entbinden". In Bach's version of 1746, the chorus opens with the line "Kommet, ihr verworfnen Sünder". Cummings has recorded this version. According to the AAM booklet, Mortensen uses the same version, but surprisingly his performance has the original text in this chorus. Unfortunately the liner-notes of both the CPO and the Accent recordings don't discuss matters of versions or editions. The same difference is noticeable in the chorale 'Ach Gott und Herr' [41]. Brockes indicates that here the two first stanzas of the hymn should be sung. in Cummings' recording only the first stanza is performed. Again, both Egarr and Mortensen follow the intentions of Brockes.

These three performances also show differences in the line-up. The main roles are those of the Evangelist (tenor) and Jesus (bass) as well as those of the two allegorical characters, Daughter of Zion and the Faithful Soul. The latter two are mainly for soprano, but sometimes the role of the Faithful Soul is allocated to alto, tenor or bass. It seems obvious that some singers take care of more than one role. However, as the oratorio includes a duet of the Daughter of Zion and the Faithful Soul - the latter in soprano range - at least two sopranos are needed. The roles of the Evangelist and Peter - both tenor - cannot be sung by the same singer. If other singers take care of more than one role, at least six voices are needed. Mortensen follows a practice that is also used by some performers in Bach's sacred music: one voice per part, if needed with one additional ripienist per part. However, for the part of the Daughter of Zion, he has added a third singer, probably because that part is quite demanding, considering the number of arias. Cummings takes a more traditional approach: the main roles are sung by soloists, and for the minor roles he turns to members of the NDR Choir, who are not mentioned. The booklet does not list the members of the choir, and therefore I don't know how large it is. Egarr basically does the same, and uses a choir of twenty singers. In the booklet to his recording Alexander Van Ingen argues that this larger line-up may well be in accordance with the performance practice in Hamburg in 1719. The performances of all four settings of the Brockes Passion took place in the refectory of the Cathedral, where Mattheson was music director. This seems to have been a pretty large space (it has been demolished in the early 1800s), as Mattheson reports that one performance was attended by around 1,000 people. The Cathedral had eight singers - which seems to be the standard in Hamburg at the time - but often turned to singers of the Opera (which had also eight singers), including women. For special occasions, like these four performances, even more singers may have been involved. The same may have been the case with regard to the number of instrumentalists: the Opera had an orchestra of about twenty players at its disposal. "Evidence from the manuscript sources suggests that oboe lines were at least doubled (requiring a minimum of four oboes rather than two) and there's no doubt that two bassoons are necessary as a minimum rather than one (there being two individual bassoon lines in two of the numbers). This, in turn, suggests more than just a bare minimum of strings (in his On Playing the Flute, Quantz suggests four oboes should have 12 violins to balance) (...)". Apart from these historical considerations, Egarr and his colleagues believe that this line-up "works well today". Cummings confines himself to two oboes rather than four as in Egarr's recording, but his string body is of about the same size. Mortensen's ensemble is considerably smaller, as it includes only seven violins and two violas.

Let's turn to the performances. I already indicated that the role of the Daughter of Zion is quite demanding. From that angle one can only admire Johannette Zomer taking care of this role all alone, during the live performance which Accent released. However, I am not sure whether it was such a good idea to release this performance. The fact that some minor roles are sung by members of the choir has the consequence that they come from different places; that would not have been the case in a studio production. I also would have liked a more reverberant acoustic; the sound in this performance lacks some depth. In comparison, the other two (studio) recordings are acoustically more satisfying.

Not being a great admirer of Johannette Zomer's voice and way of singing, I was rather sceptical about her performance of the part of the Daughter of Zion in this oratorio, but I hoped she would positively surprise me. She did not. Her performance is marred by a pretty large incessant vibrato, which makes it hard to enjoy the great music Handel has given this character. The vibrato is also largely the same all the time, and comes at the same places, mostly at unaccentuated notes. I should add that many of the singers in this and in the rival performances generally don't do that much better. The three ladies in Mortensen's recording come off best in this department, as do the male altos in all three performances.

Overall, the performance directed by Cummings is the least dramatic of the three, which is a little surprising, as it is a live performance, which often results in more drama than a studio recording. The interaction is not that good. It has also to do with the way the recitatives are performed, which are pretty much strict in time. That is especially a problem in the part of the Evangelist, sung by Sebastian Kohlhepp, whose incessant vibrato makes his part rather unpleasant to listen to anyway. I had liked to hear someone like Georg Poplutz in this part. Tobias Berndt has the right voice for the part of Jesus, but sometimes his performance lacks depth (such as in the accompagnato 'Mein Vater, schau wie ich mich quäle'). The remaining parts are largely disappointing. Ana Maria Labin is a bit bland, Rupert Charlesworth spoils the part of Peter by his incessant vibrato and is dynamically too undifferentiated. David Erler is stylistically the most convincing of all the soloists, but his account of the part of Judas is too harmless.

I'm pretty happy with the three sopranos in Mortensen's recording. Three fine voices, which are not that different, but as they largely represent the same character - Daughter of Zion - that seems rather appropriate than a problem. I am less satisfied by Ed Lyon's account of the role of the Evangelist. Apart from the usual vibrato problem, his performance is not that idiomatic and not declamatory enough. The treatment of the recitatives shows largely the same problem as in Cummings' recording: too strict in time. Peter Harvey does not have a good start, but improves considerably; I always need time to get used to his voice and way of singing, and he never will be one of my favourites. Gwylim Bowen is disappointing in the role of Peter; he takes the same part in Egarr's recording, and there he makes a much better impression.

In that recording, he is one of the better performers, alongside Elisabeth Watts, Ruby Hughes and Tim Mead. Robert Murray fails to convince as the Evangelist: he sings the recitatives as if they are ariosos; it is not very speechlike, and tends to a bit pathetic. That is also the problem in the account of the part of Jesus by Cody Quattlebaum. And, even more than in the other two performances, the performers don't take enough freedom in the recitatives. There is no lack of drama in Egarr's performance, which is partly due to the larger forces than in the other recordings. It seems right that the singers add ornamentation in the manner of contemporary opera, but sometimes it goes over the top, such as Elisabeth Watts in 'Brich, mein Herz' [19]. The chorales are particularly disappointing. There is quite some vibrato in all the voices, but also a lack of text expression. The two closing chorales are pretty mechanical, as if the text is of no importance. Both the NDR Choir in Cummings' performance and Mortensen's small ensemble do much better here.

I have already pointed out that the treatment of the recitatives leaves something to be desired in all three performances. There is a second issue which concerns all three: the performance of the appoggiaturas. Telemann has clearly explained how these have to be performed, but his instructions are largely ignored. That is a problem I have noticed in quite a number of recordings in recent years.

As one may have gathered by now, I am not that enthusiastic about either of these performances. On balance, I tend to prefer Mortensen, as his performance has the fewest weaknesses. The sopranos are his main asset, and the ensemble does rather well in the tutti episodes. However, the arguments in favour of larger forces seem pretty convincing, and that may well be the reason that in his performance the dramatic aspects don't come off to the full. Richard Egarr's performance seems to be a must for those who have a special interest in Handel's music. One reason is the extensive documentation, which is exemplary. The second is that his version is most close to Handel's original intentions. Moreover, the third disc is an interesting bonus. It offers some alternative versions of sections of the oratorio: the opening symphonia, a chorus [11], an aria of the Daughter of Zion [71] and a recitative [96]. Even more interesting is the recording of those parts which Charles Jennens, the librettist of Messiah, translated into English. From a historical point of view that is just intriguing stuff.

All in all, if one looks for a satisfying performance, which does full justice to this masterwork by Handel, I recommend the recording by Peter Neumann, which I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this review. The AAM booklet lists several recordings to be released in the future, but it will take some doing to surpass Neumann's performance.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Tobias Berndt
Gwilym Bowen
Daniel Elgersma
David Erler
Peter Harvey
Ruby Hughes
Jakob Bloch Jespersen
Sebastian Kohlhepp
Ana Maria Labin
Rachael Lloyd
Tim Mead
Morgan Pearse
Cody Quattlebaum
Nicky Spence
Elizabeth Watts
Johannette Zomer
Hanna Zumsande
NDR Chor
Academy of Ancient Music
Concerto Copenhagen

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