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/Peter Neumann
rec. live, 17-19 May 2009, St Johann Church, Schaffhausen
CARUS 83.428 [78:25 + 74:58]
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 also set by other composers: 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. 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, - 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. 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
Handel explored the operatic character of the libretto to the
full. It is hardly surprising 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 divided by a recitative -
are introduced by dramatic chords from 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 reminiscent of
opera are the rage arias; there are no less than four in this
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 – one made by Johann Sebastian Bach. 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 omits to tell us - 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 greatly contributes to
the drama which unfolds.
There are not that many recordings of Handel's Brockes Passion.
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