musica Dei donum

CD reviews

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

Sandrine Piau, soprano; Stuart Jackson, tenor; Konstantin Krimmel, baritone
Dir: Jonathan Cohen

rec: Oct 9 - 13, 2019, London, St Jude's Church
Alpha - 644 (2 CDs) (© 2020) (2.40'46")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Mary Bevan, Mhairi Lawson, soprano; David Allsopp, Alex Potter, alto; Matthew Long, Andrew Tortise, tenor; Marcus Farnsworth, William Gaunt, bass
Katharina Spreckelsen, Leo Duarte, oboe; Bethan White, taille; Joe Qui, Zoe Shevlin, bassoon; Michael Gurevich, Davina Clarke, Simone Pirri, James Toll, Beatrice Philips, violin; John Crockatt, Hannah Shaw, viola; Piroska Baranyay, Tim Smedley, cello; Timothy Amherst, double bass; Thomas Dunford, Sergio Bucheli, lute; Jonathan Cohen, harpsichord; Thomas Foster, organ

At the time Johann Sebastian Bach composed his St Matthew Passion and St John Passion, the genre of the oratorio Passion was already out of date. It was basically a relict of the 17th century, when the narrative of the Evangelists was the core of a Passion. In Bach's time, this form had been overshadowed by the so-called Passion oratorio, which does not include the biblical text but rather a paraphrase of the texts in the four gospels. In some of these oratorios we meet the characters we also know from the Gospels, such as Mary, John and Peter, who react to and reflect on the events as described by the evangelists. In others the characters are mostly allegorical, such as the faithful soul and the Daughter of Zion. One of the most famous Passion oratorios of Bach's time was the Brockes-Passion, which was written by Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747).

Brockes 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 cannot surprise that a composer from Hamburg was the first who set this text: Reinhard Keiser, who played a key role in the Oper am Gänsemarkt, wrote his Brockes-Passion in 1712. Georg Philipp Telemann, always open to the fashion of his time, was the second (1716). Another composer from Hamburg, Johann Mattheson, wrote his version in 1718. Other composers followed in their footsteps, among them Johann Friedrich Fasch (1723) and Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1725). The odd man out in this company is George Frideric Handel; his setting probably dates from 1716. He had already settled in London, and one may wonder why he felt the need to write his Brockes-Passion. Obviously, it was completely useless for performance in England, considering its German text. The four composers of the earliest settings 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 the recording under the direction of Richard Egarr (Academy of Ancient Music, 2019), 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.

Whereas in some later Passion oratorios the character of the Evangelist is completely omitted (such as in Der Tod Jesu by Carl Heinrich Graun), in the Brockes-Passion the paraphrase of the narrative in the Gospels 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.

Keiser, Handel, Telemann and Mattheson 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. The text is set in a very expressive way, not only for the voices 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.

Considering the importance of the Brockes-Passion in 18th-century Germany, and the fact that Handel is one of the most frequently-performed and -recorded composers of the baroque period, it is rather surprising that until 2019 only a few recordings were available. Equally surprising is that in that year no fewer than three recordings were released simultaneously. I reviewed all of them, and although each had some strengths, they also suffered from considerable weaknesses. They were different in several respects, for instance the number of singers and players involved, and the way the choruses were treated. Whereas Richard Egarr and Laurence Cummings (Accent) used a choir for the choruses, Lars Ulrik Mortensen (CPO) opted for a performance with one voice per part, with an additional soprano for the role of the Daughter of Zion. Jonathan Cohen more or less follows in his footsteps: he has a vocal ensemble of eight (SSAATTBB), but the interpreters of the three main roles - the Evangelist, Jesus and the Daughter of Zion - are not part of it and don't participate in the tutti sections. Cohen's instrumental ensemble is even smaller: five violins to Mortensen's seven; both employ two violas. Whether this small line-up is in line with the performance practice in Hamburg when these Brockes-Passions were performed in sequence, is hard to say. The liner-notes to Egarr's recording mention that the performances in Hamburg took place in the refectory of the Cathedral, and that, according to Mattheson, one performance was attended by around 1,000 people. For some performances the singers and the orchestra of the Cathedral were extended with forces from the Opera. From that we may conclude that there are several options as far as the line-up is concerned.

Turning to the actual performance, I was rather sceptical, especially with regard to the participation of Sandrine Piau, whose performances of baroque music I find often problematic. This work may be dramatic, but that does not justify an operatic way of singing. The first aria, 'Der Gott, dem alle Himmelskreise' is not very promising, and in the second part 'Heil der Welt' is problematic. However, Piau is also responsible for some of the highlights, such as 'Brich, mein Herz, zerfliess in Tränen' (I) and 'Lass doch diese herbe Schmerzen' (II). The last aria, 'Wisch ab der Tränen scharfe Lauge' receives a wonderful performance. Stuart Jackson takes the part of the Evangelist. He sings it well, but unfortunately the tempo is generally too slow and rhythmically too strict. Sometimes he is a bit too pathetic, for instance in a recitative in Part I, on the words "daß blutger Schweiß in ungezählten Tropfen aus allen Adern drang". Konstantin Krimmel is a new name to me; I like his voice and he sings the part of Jesus very well, and stylistically he does not put a foot wrong either.

The members of the vocal ensemble take care of the smaller roles. Among them we find some experienced singers who often perform as soloists in baroque repertoire, such as Alex Potter, Mhairi Lawson, Mary Bevan and Andrew Tortise. The performances vary from acceptable to excellent. Mhairi Lawson does well in the aria 'Dem Himmel gleicht sein buntgefärbter Rücken', with a nice obbligato part for violin. Johann Sebastian Bach included this aria, with a partly changed text, in his St John Passion, and his setting does more justice to the tenor of this piece. 'Erwäge doch', an aria of the Faithful Soul in Part 1 receives a good performance from Andrew Tortise. Matthew Long finds the right approach in Petrus's belligerent aria 'Gift und Glut', but the more restrained and intimate 'Nehmt mich mit' is spoiled by his vibrato. The trio 'O Donnerwort! O schrecklich Schreien' is one of the highlights, also thanks to the fine performance by Lawson, David Allsopp and William Gaunt.

The chorales are much better than I was expecting, especially as this is a part of baroque repertoire that British ensembles have problems with. Here the chorales probably come off better than in any British performance I have heard before. It is regrettable that there are some errors in the pronunciation which have not been corrected. In the arioso 'Ich seh' an einen Stein gebunden' Mhairi Lawson sings "Strick und Strahl", whereas the text has "Strick und Stahl". And in 'Heil der Welt' Sandrine Piau alternates between "erbarmlich" (wrong) and "erbärmlich" (correct). The libretto in the booklet includes several printing errors. I find it also regrettable that it does not include the numbers in the score. That makes it hard to compare this recording with others.

Time to sum up. My expectations of this recording were not very high, but I am happy to say that Cohen has put me wrong. In my previous review I expressed by preference for the recording under the direction of Peter Neumann (Carus, 2010). That has not changed. However, this recording by Jonathan Cohen is certainly one of the best that have been released in recent years. Cohen and Mortensen end up ex aequo.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Konstantin Krimmel
Sandrine Piau

CD Reviews