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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Brockes-Passion: Passion Oratorio in one part HWV 48 (1719)
Johannette Zomer, Daughter of Zion; Ana Maria Labin, Mary/Believer/John; Sebastian Kohlhepp, Evangelist; Rupert Charlesworth, Peter/Believer; Tobias Berndt, Jesus/Believer; David Erler, James/Judas/Soldier
NDR Chor
FestspielOrchester Göttingen/Laurence Cummings
rec. live, 25 May 2017, Stadthalle, Göttingen, Germany,
ACCENT ACC26411 [2 CDs: 151:00]

Over decades of listening to records and attending concerts I managed to miss Handel's The Passion of Christ, (Brockes-Passion) until March 2018, when local musicians, the Portsmouth Festival Choir, the Consort of Twelve, with soloists from the Royal Academy, all directed by Thomas Neal, gave a fine performance in an Emsworth (West Sussex) church. Filled with enthusiasm for the piece and mentally chastising myself for ignoring it for so long I bought the recording on Carus by the Cologne Chamber Choir reviewed by Johan van Veen. Jan opined that this would set the standard for every future recording. Now, some nine years later, Laurence Cummings and the North German Radio Choir with the Göttingen Festival Orchestra have exceeded that standard, I think, in all respects. The solo singing is at least as good and mostly better, the chorus is a match for any, the orchestra plays with much more incisiveness and Cummings drives this piece with urgency. Here the events of Passiontide as told by Bartold Heinrich Brockes are recounted not with respectful restraint but as an unfolding drama every stage of which matters.

It is obvious from the history of Brockes libretto that Brockes himself believed he had something very special to offer. He touted it around every composer of importance, Handel being just one, and we know of at least three other settings, by Reinhard Keiser, by Telemann and by Johann Mattheson. The Keiser is available on two Ramée CDs, and indeed Keiser's setting of the precursor text, noted as the earliest example of a Passion Oratorio libretto, by the poet Christian Friedrich Hunold, Der blutige und sterbende Jesus is also available from CPO. I mention this because one of my musically informed friends considers Keiser's setting of the Brockes-Passion to be even better than Handel's.

Back to Handel. No one knows for what occasion he set this groundbreaking libretto but it was first performed in Hamburg Cathedral just over 200 years ago in April 1719. Faced with words that urge one to consider the impact of events on the individual believer, the spiritual upheaval caused by Jesus' betrayal and crucifixion, is conveyed via a long series of short texts for arias, choruses and recitatives. Handel responds with a remarkable list of over a hundred 'numbers', each given a track on these two well-filled CDs. There is no time for Bach-like contemplation, thus, for example, the chorales are often less than a minute long. Handel's work was composed a few years before Bach's great statements on the St Matthew and St John texts from the Bible were first performed, and it is not really comparable.

If, like me, you have managed to overlook this great work, or even if you already possess another recording, this new one is the one to buy and it comes most urgently recommended. The recording, standard CD stereo only, not even a hi-res download, is otherwise as good as one could wish. The notes are extensive and accompanied by a full text in German with English parallel translation. Even the covers are graced with a couple of superb Ruben's paintings.

Dave Billinge

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