Handel's 'Brockes Passion' has had rather a bad
press, suffering rather in comparison with Bach's passions. In
fact, Handel's 'Brockes Passion' was written written at about
the same time as 'Esther', some eight years before Bach wrote
the St. John Passion. One of the subsidiary impulses which led
to the creation of 'Esther' may have been a desire, on Handel's
part, to hear some of the music from the passion performed as
'Esther' re-uses some nine numbers and others were re-used in
The text had first been set by Keiser in 1712
and was set by Telemann in 1716. During Holy Week, in 1719, Johann
Mattheson (who was also a friend of Handel's) arranged performances
of four settings of the libretto by Keiser, Telemann, Handel and
himself. Bach used elements of Brockes libretto when he came to
write the St. John Passion and he knew Handel's setting, one of
the earliest manuscripts of Handel's work is in J.S. ach's hand.
Handel's own autograph of the work is lacking.
In style it lies somewhere between the liturgical
passions of Bach and Telemann and the Italian oratorio. The tenor
Evangelist narrates, the chorus takes on the role of the Christian
faithful and the Jewish mob, there are arias commenting on the
action, but the characters in the narrative also have arias -
Jesus sings a duet with his mother. The Evangelist's narrations,
though, are not taken directly from the gospels but are a rhymed
text which is a free paraphrase of all four Gospels. Much of the
commentary is given to the Daughter of Zion, emphasising the sufferings
of Christ as proof of his devotion to mankind.
The keen eared may spot occasional pre-echoes
of English oratorio even if this work has not the structural sophistication
that Handel developed in this genre. Though leaving Germany when
fairly young, he was sufficiently trained in and attuned to the
Lutheran organ loft to understand what the congregation expected
of a passion - a contemplative, meditative drama. Though the arias
might vary stylistically in a way that does not happen in Bach,
they are all firmly rooted in the psychology of the drama and
this is helped by the popular libretto by Brockes.
As a result of recent research the performance
starts with a very familiar piece of music, as the opening movement
of Concerto Grosso Opus 3 no. 2, is used as the introductory sinfonia
rather than the short movement which exists in the earliest manuscripts.
Jesus, sung by baritone, Istvan Gati, makes his
first appearance on the Mount of Olives, in a recitative followed
by a sequence of three arias. The moving 'Mein Vater, mein Vater'
recurs, after a short recitative, as 'Ist's möglich', only
the words changing, the music is identical. In 'Erwachet doch',
Jesus's warning to the sleeping disciples is interrupted by their
confused questions, making a striking arioso. In scenes like this,
Handel's dramatic training is rarely far away and it become more
understandable why the work has been presented dramatically on
the stage. After Judas's betrayal of Christ, Peter (sung by one
of the tenor soloists) curses him in a wonderfully dramatic aria
that is unfortunately marred by the aspirates the singer uses
in the runs. Happily, Peter redeems himself in his following two
arias, both sung very movingly, especially the aria 'Heul, du
Fluch!' with its lovely oboe obbligato.
Evangelist, Martin Klietmann, has an attractive,
expressive voice and this can be most moving in his recitatives;
unfortunately Handel gives him no arias. Instead, the Daughter
of Zion, sung brilliantly by Maria Zadori, gets the lion’s share
of the arias. She is one of the principal conduits of Brockes
comment and meditation on the action as she constantly interrupts
with arias. In a long work, she gets sixteen arias and ariosos
in all, as well as a moving duet with Jesus.
Apart from the Evangelist, Jesus and the Daughter
of Zion, the booklet fails to name which singer sings which part.
Judas, interestingly, is played by a counter-tenor, who sings
very stylishly, making you wish that Handel had given the character
rather more to do. Caiaphas (presumably baritone Gunther Buzynski)
is unfortunately rather blustery.
The third CD opens with the Daughter of Zion
and the chorus singing 'Eilt, ihr angefochten Seelen', with its
remarkable echoes of Bach's treatment of the same subject. The
soprano singing Maria, Christ's mother, is unfortunately a bit
squally and has a tendency to sing under the note, which is a
shame as she gets a sublime duet with her son. In this final third
of the work, the role of the Daughter of Zion is, to a certain
extent, taken over by the Faithful Soul, another soprano role.
Unfortunately she is a little tentative and has occasional tuning
Christ's death is marked by a striking trio and
afterwards, the role of the Faithful Soul passes to a baritone
and a tenor soloist. The latter has an accompagnato which leads
into the final part of the work where a pair of chorales come
either side of a moving aria for the Daughter of Zion. The resulting
scene makes a fine end to the work.
The young sounding chorus sings with a fine attack,
but sometimes that can sound a little too vehement. Many of the
choruses are quite short. The Brockes Passion was written well
before Handel had started to develop his sophisticated use of
the chorus, integrating it into the action in a way that is typical
of the later oratorios.
There are some significant problems inherent
in the libretto and it would require a freer treatment to resolve
them. Many of the characters sing arias which are gathered together
in groups. Peter's three arias and one arioso are grouped together
and towards the end of the second CD, the Daughter of Zion has
a remarkable sequence of six arias punctuated only by recitative
and a chorus. You cannot help wondering what the later Handel,
with his sophisticated treatment of soloists and chorus in the
later oratorios, would have made of the text.
There is much lovely music here, but though Handel
knew what was required his attention does wander and you can feel
that his heart was not always in it. Being written in London,
(where he was immersed in the opera and English church music)
you feel a strong sense of distance.
The St. John Passion was long regarded as an
early work by Handel, written in Hamburg in 1704. It had to be
early, as there are few really Handelian fingerprints in the music.
In the late 1960s though, musicologists started allocating it
to Georg Böhm (1661-1733), a Thuringian-born composer who
worked in Hamburg and Luneburg. He is remembered chiefly for his
fine organ music and his influence on Bach. But the record booklet
makes an interesting case for Handel's authorship, particularly
as Handel's friend Mattheson was an advocate of the work.
It is a short piece (well, short for a passion,
lasting some 60 minutes). It consists of rather short numbers,
in a direct, simple style, generically late baroque rather than
showing an specifically Handelian mannerisms. A number of the
soloists are common to both recordings and here they make a fine
case for the work, whoever it is by. It has a number of lovely
moments including duets for two sopranos, two tenors and soprano
and bass. Pilate plays quite a large role in the work and is strongly
sung by Charles Brett.
Both these recordings make strong cases for the
two passions. The Brockes Passion has been rather unfairly neglected
and there are not too many versions in the catalogue. This one,
whilst not always perfect, makes a fine introduction to the work.