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Reinhard KEISER (1674 - 1739): Brockes-Passion

Zsuzsi Tóth (Tochter Zion), soprano; Jan Van Elsacker (Evangelist), tenor; Peter Kooij (Jesus), bass
Vox Luminis; Les Muffatti
Dir: Peter Van Heyghen

rec: July 2012, Antwerp, AMUZ
Ramée - RAM 1303 (2 CDs) (© 2014) (2.00'35")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Caroline Weynants (Magd 1, Gläubige Seele), Sara Jäggi (Magd 2, Maria, Gläubige Seele), soprano; Jan Kullmann, Barnabás Hegyi, alto; Fernando Guimarães (Petrus, Gläubige Seele), Robert Buckland (Jacobus, Judas, Kriegsknecht, Gläubige Seele), tenor; Hugo Oliveira (Johannes, Gläubige Seele, aria [37]), Lionel Meunier (Caiphas, Pilatus, Hauptmann, Gläubige Seele), bass

At the time Johann Sebastian Bach composed his Passions the form of the oratorio Passion was already in the process of becoming old-fashioned. The core of his Passions was the biblical text as told in one of the gospels. He included free poetic texts in the form of accompanied recitatives, arias and chorales with the purpose of commenting on the events as they unfold. These comments are put into the mouth of the congregation or the individual believer. Bach avoided any connection between these free texts and specific characters in the story. That was very different in the new genre of the Passion oratorio. Although Bach's Passions were criticised for being 'operatic' the Passion oratorio was much closer to opera as Johann Mattheson acknowledged when he characterized the genre as 'sacred opera'. The Brockes-Passion by Reinhard Keiser is one of the first specimens of this genre.

Barthold Heinrich 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. In 1714 he published the libretto - written two years before - of what has become known as the Brockes-Passion: "B. H. Brockes / JESUS / tortured and dying / for the sin of the world / upon the IV evangelists / by B. H. B. / presented in verse / and performed to music during Holy Week / in the year of 1712". Reinhard Keiser was the first to set the libretto.

He was born in Teuchern, near Weissenfels, where his father acted as organist. In 1685 he became a pupil at the Thomasschule in Leipzig, where he received his musical education from Johann Schelle and probably also Johann Kuhnau. According to Johann Mattheson Keiser developed as a composer mainly under the influence of the Italian music he studied. His first experiences as an opera composer were in Braunschweig, and somewhat later in Hamburg where in 1696 or 1697 he became director of the Theater am Gänsemarkt as the successor to Johann Sigismund Kusser. From 1703 Keiser was the dominating composer of operas in Hamburg, until 1718 when the Theater am Gänsemarkt went bankrupt. He tried to find a job as Kapellmeister at several places, but to no avail. When Telemann was becoming director of the opera Keiser had new chances of composing operas. But that ended after some years because of another crisis in the Opera. In 1728 Keiser succeeded Johann Mattheson as Kantor of Hamburg Cathedral. The Cathedral had a specific position in Hamburg: it was extraterritorial, as since 1715 it was under the supervision of the House of Braunschweig-Lüneburg. Therefore it wasn't the Musikdirektor of Hamburg - which at the time was Telemann - who was responsible for the music in the Cathedral. Since his appointment Keiser performed about 40 oratorios, according to Mattheson. The Brockes-Passion was not the first piece in the genre of the Passion oratorio from Keiser's pen. In 1704 he composed Der blutige und sterbende Jesu on a libretto by Christian Friedrich Hunold.

In contrast to the oratorio Passion 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. Among them is Jesus, who has one aria and participates in two duets. There are also two symbolic characters, Tochter Zion (Daughter of Zion) and Gläubige Seele (the Believer). The former has most of the arias and is scored for soprano whereas the latter is variably scored for soprano, tenor and bass. The arias are mostly rather short and rarely take more than three minutes. With more than five minutes Heil der Welt, an aria of the Daughter of Zion, is by far the longest.

Those who regularly listen to Bach's Passions probably need some time to get used to this approach to the Passion story. However, it is well worth the effort because Keiser's setting of this libretto is one of the best. That is probably partly due to the fact that this work is still strongly rooted in the baroque idiom, although it points in the direction of what is to come in the next decades. It is also due to the qualities of Keiser as a composer whose oeuvre is not thoroughly explored as yet. Considering the quality of his music I have heard over the years and especially his Brockes-Passion it is highly regrettable that so much of his oeuvre has been lost.

It is difficult to imagine a better interpretation of his Brockes-Passion than the present one under the direction of Peter Van Heyghen. One seldom hears a stylistically more consistent performance of a work in which a considerable number of singers are involved as soloists. Here no one is at odds with the approach which Van Heyghen has chosen. It certainly does help that most - except for those mentioned separately - participate in the tutti sections. The orchestra delivers a colourful and engaging interpretation of the score, and the obbligato parts - among them for transverse flute, oboe and violin - are excellently executed.

This production is really a winner in every respect. It is a riveting account of the Passion story from the point of view of the Hamburg poet Brockes.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Peter Kooij
Zsuzsi Tóth
Vox Luminis
Les Muffatti

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