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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767): Brockes-Passion (Der für die Sünde der Welt leidende und sterbende Jesus) (TWV 5,1)

Birgitte Christensen (Gläubige Seele, 3. Magd, Maria, Tochter Zion), Lydia Teuscher (Gläubige Seele, 2. Magd, Tochter Zion), soprano; Marie-Claude Chappuis (Gläubige Seele, Judas, 1. Magd), mezzosoprano; Donát Havár (Gläubige Seele, Hauptmann, Petrus, Pilatus), Daniel Behle (Evangelist, Gläubige Seele), tenor; Johannes Weisser (Gläubige Seele, Jesus), baritone
RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Dir: René Jacobs

rec: March 2008, Berlin, Teldex Studio
Harmonia mundi - HMC 902013.14 (2 CDs) (© 2009) (2.19'51")

When Johann Sebastian Bach performed his St Matthew Passion in Leipzig some from the audience complained about the operatic character of the work. Obviously they had never heard the Brockes-Passion which Telemann first performed in Frankfurt am Main in 1716. It shows the theatrical instinct of Telemann, who also composed a considerable number of operas, most of which are still waiting to be rediscovered.

Bach's Passions were among the last specimens of a genre which was about to vanish. The 18th century experienced a new kind of Passion music: the Passion oratorio. Whereas the text of the Gospels was the core of the traditional oratorio Passion, the new fashion was to replace this text with a paraphrase. The arias were meant as comment and meditation about the events unfolding. One of the most popular librettos for this kind of Passion was 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. The libretto was published in 1712, and that same year it was set to music by Reinhard Keiser, like Brockes a citizen of Hamburg. In 1716 not only Telemann, but also Handel - who was already living and working in England at the time - set the libretto, and in 1717 another composer from Hamburg, Johann Mattheson, composed a Brockes-Passion. 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.

Johann Mattheson was also the one who described this kind of compositions as 'sacred operas'. That is spot on as far as Telemann's setting of Brockes' libretto is concerned. Everything here is aimed at getting the audience emotionally involved in the story of Jesus' Passion. The language is drastic and leaves hardly anything to the imagination. The gory details are not hidden in any way - on the contrary. In addition all the characters in the story have their own arias and accompanied recitatives, even Jesus. Brockes goes so far as to include a duet between Jesus at the cross and his mother Mary. It is easy to understand that such Passion oratorios were more and more performed outside the church, as public concerts during Passiontide. It is also understandable that Bach only included some parts of Brockes' text in his St John Passion, and then mostly with some editorial changes.

René Jacobs is mainly known for his performances and recordings of operas from the 17th and 18th centuries. He has recorded Telemann's opera Orpheus some years ago, and his interest in his Brockes-Passion doesn't come as a surprise. Two years ago he has directed some live performances, and now it is available on disc. It is not a complete performance, though. Several arias and some recitatives have been cut "for reasons of dramatic coherence", as the booklet says. What is it with interpreters that they think to know better than the composer? It is probably a convenient coincidence that the cuts made it possible to record the whole work on just two discs.

You can leave it to Jacobs to emphasize the dramatic character of a composition. The merit of his approach is that it shows Telemann's theatrical instinct which is probably not what immediately springs to mind when one sees the name of Telemann. But he was a prolific opera composer who was one of the pillars of the opera at the Gänsemarkt in Hamburg. And in his orchestral overtures he often included theatrical elements, for instance when he portrays characters from the commedia dell'arte. The soloists, the choir and the orchestra are like putty in Jacobs' hands when it comes down to exploring the dramatic character of the Brockes-Passion.

Jacobs' interpretation has its merits and flaws. First of all, there is a large amount of stylistic coherence. It striked me that the soloists all sing their parts in a very speechlike manner, well-articulated and with clear dynamic accents in their arias and their recitatives. Something which I have often criticised in recordings of vocal music is the lack of rhythmic freedom in the recitatives. One of the assets of this recording is that this freedom is fully taken. René Jacobs has always emphasized that recitatives are important and that it is the task of the interpreter to keep them interesting. That is certainly the case here, although it has to be said that there are not many long sequences of secco recitatives because there are so many arias.

Another virtue of this interpretation is that the orchestral parts are exciting, captivating and dramatic, and that the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin is on brilliant form here. No detail in the orchestral score is passing by unnoticed. The orchestra strongly contributes to the drama of the Passion. The obbligato parts - for instance for transverse flutes, recorders, oboe and violin - are given expressive performances.

Like in all recordings directed by René Jacobs there are some weaknesses as well. One of them is that most singers use much more vibrato than what we know was common use in the baroque era. The vibrato isn't just an ornament here, and often it is rather wide. That makes the singing not always pleasant to listen to, in particular in loud passages (and there are many of them). Birgitte Christensen's voice is sometimes a bit shrill in the upper range. Stylistically Marie-Claude Chappuis is the most satisfying, with a warm timbre and a mostly pure tone. Daniel Behle deserves to be mentioned as a very eloquent Evangelist. Johannes Weisser is dramatically very good in the role of Jesus, but stylistically he wouldn't be my first choice in baroque music. Donát Havár sings the roles of Peter and Pilate really well.

The turbae are brilliantly performed by the RIAS Kammerchor, with a good sense of drama. Like the arias the chorales are also performed with dynamic accents where it is due, and the caesuras between the lines are observed. Sometimes I found the choral passages a bit unpolished and rough, especially the three stanzas of the closing chorale. There is also reason to question the number of singers involved: with 35 singers the choir seems to me a bit too large.

Let me return to the cuts. It is mostly some more reflective arias which have been omitted. And this only reinforces the impression that Telemann's Brockes-Passion is a highly dramatic work. And it is, as I have described above. But because of the omission of some reflective arias the picture of this work is too one-sided. When I listened to this recording for the first time, I did so in one session, and after a while I got tired because of all the drama and the fierceness with which the story is delivered. The danger of an overload of drama can lead to being numbed, and that is probably not totally avoided here.

The booklet contains comprehensive programme notes. I noticed several differences between the lyrics as printed in the booklet and the text as it is sung. I can't explain that. The role of the Tochter Zion (Daughter of Zion) is divided over the two sopranos, but the booklet doesn't give any indication as to who of them sings which aria. Also the role of the Gläubige Seele (Believer) is divided over all six singers but who is singing which aria is not indicated.

Despite my criticisms this is a most welcome addition to the catalogue, both of music for Passiontide and of the oeuvre of Telemann. The missing arias can be heard in the only real complete recording, directed by Nicholas McGegan (Hungaroton, 1994).

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

RIAS Kammerchor
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

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