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

Nele Gramß (Tochter Zion), Johanna Winkel (Gläubige Seele), soprano, Elivira Bill (Maria), mezzosoprano, Jan Thomer (Judas), alto, Markus Brutscher (Evangelist), James Oxley (Petrus), tenor, Markus Flaig (Jesus), Michael Dahmen, bass
Kölner Kammerchor, Collegium Cartusianum
Dir: Peter Neumann

rec: May 17 - 19, 2009 (live), Schaffhausen, Kirche St Johann
Carus - 83.428 (2 CDs) (© 2010) (2.23'23")

George Frideric Handel left a large oeuvre, most of it written after he had left Germany. As a result very few compositions on a German text are known. For some time a St John Passion was attributed to Handel, but there now seems general agreement that it was written by someone else. That leaves the Nine German Arias and the Brockes Passion. Although they are on German texts Handel wrote them while he was living in England.

Handel used the well-known libretto Der für die Sünden der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus (Jesus who suffered and died for the sins of the world) written by Barthold Heinrich Brockes. It was set by other composers as well: Reinhard Keiser (1712, the same year the libretto was published), Georg Philipp Telemann in 1716 (the same year as Handel) and Johann Mattheson in 1718. The latter performed all four in Holy Week of 1719 in the refectory of Hamburg Cathedral. This church was a kind of sanctuary in Hamburg because it was not under the supervision of the city council. Brockes' text was of a dramatic nature and offered a composer much opportunity to write in an operatic style. And that kind of Passion music was certainly not approved of by the ecclesiastical authorities.

The Brockes Passion was one of the first in the new genre of the Passion oratorio in which the text of the Gospels was paraphrased. The report of the events is delivered by the Evangelist, the other characters in the Gospels are also represented - Judas, Peter, Pilate etc - but there are also two symbolic characters: Tochter Zion (Daughter of Sion) and Gläubige Seele (the Believer) who reflect and comment on the events. They take most of the arias, and are mostly scored for soprano. Because of the number of arias some are performed by Johanna Winkel, who also takes the role of the Believer. But two arias of the Believer and one of Daughter of Sion are given to a tenor, and are sung here by Markus Brutscher. And another aria of the Believer is scored for bass: 'Wie kommt's, dass da der Himmel weint', sung by Michael Dahmen.

Handel explored the operatic character of the libretto to the full. 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 the opera are the rage arias; there are no less than four in this oratorio.

In some arias instruments play a prominent role. The aria 'Dem Himmel gleicht sein buntgefärbter Rücken' - which with some textual differences also appears in Bach's St John Passion - contains an extended solo for the violin. The highly expressive aria 'Die ihr Gottes Gnad' versäumet' has a beautiful obbligato part for the oboe. And the last aria of this oratorio, 'Wisch ab der Tränen scharfe Lauge', begins with an introduction by the strings, after which soprano and oboe proceed alone in unisono. These are just some examples of the many splendid arias this oratorio contains. In addition there are two duets, between Daughter of Sion and Jesus, and between Mary and Jesus respectively. The latter and the preceding recitative are the only passages which are given to Mary.

Handel's manuscript has not been preserved. For this recording a copy was used which Johann Sebastian Bach has made. It is not known whether he copied it to perform in Leipzig or just out of interest. In this copy the text of the first chorus has been changed. Brockes' text begins with the words: "Mich vom Stricke meiner Sünden zu entbinden". Here we get: "Kommet, ihr verworfnen Sünder". Considering that Handel's Brockes Passion was first performed in the refectory of Hamburg Cathedral one wonders how large the ensemble would have been. A choir of 27 singers is probably a bit on the large side. On the other hand, the oratorio has been performed again in later years, probably also in larger venues, and that could well be an argument in favour of a larger ensemble. I have nothing but praise for the choir, though. It produces a powerful sound where it is due, in particular in the turbae. But the chorales are also beautifully sung.

What is so admirable about this performance is that it has absolutely no weak link. Peter Neumann has brought together a really excellent cast, which is stylistically on the same wavelength. The two sopranos have gorgeous voices; they are not that different, but here that is not really necessary. They sing the more dramatic recitatives and arias just as brilliantly as the more reflective parts. Markus Brutscher gives a splendid account of the part of the Evangelist. His articulation and diction are exemplary. If there is one thing to criticise it is that the recitatives are sometimes too strict in time, with too little rhythmic freedom. This is a problem with recordings of baroque vocal music which I have noticed quite often.

Markus Flaig performs the role of Jesus just as well, both in the recitatives and in the arias. Elvira Bill's performance of the small role of Maria is very moving, and her duet with Markus Flaig is one of the highlights of this recording. Apparently Michael Damen sings all the smaller bass roles - although the booklet doesn't tell so - and he does so convincingly. Jan Thomer sings the role of Judas, including another operatic aria (Lasst diese Tat nicht ungerochen), and James Oxley the role of Peter, and both do so beautifully. Lastly the orchestra gives excellent support to the singers and much contributes to the drama which unfolds.

There are not many recordings of Handel's Brockes Passion available. The only one I have is directed by Nicholas McGegan (originally released on Hungaroton, later reissued on Brilliant Classics). That is a quite good performance, but this new recording surpasses it. In my view it sets a new standard for every future recording of this work.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Kölner Kammerchor & Collegium Cartusianum

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