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Georg Friedrich HANDEL (1685-1759)
Brockes-Passion (1719)
Maria Keohane, Joanne Lunn, Hanna Zumsande (sopranos)
Daniel Carlsson, Daniel Elgersma (altos)
Ed Lyon, Gwilym Bowen (tenors)
Peter Harvey, Jakob Bloch Jespersen (basses)
Concerto Copenhagen/Lars Ulrik Mortensen (harpsichord)
rec. 2019, Garnisonkirche, Copenhagen
CPO 555286-2 SACD [79:20 + 78:00]

Were it not for the existence of Bach’s St Matthew and St John Passions, Handel’s Brockes Passion would most likely be much better known. Barthold Heinrich Brokes wrote the text in 1712 in Hamburg, and it was set a huge number of times in his own day. The most famous alternative setting of the same text comes from Telemann, whose setting was first performed in 1721.

It’s a very important part of the development of the German Passion tradition, therefore. The major difference from Bach’s texts is that, rather than setting the Gospel text verbatim with interjections, Brockes summarises the Gospel story in rhyme, with a narrator and soloists who guide us through the story. That tends to make the action move faster and Handel’s setting responds with movements that are, on the whole, shorter and punchier and, therefore, less demanding on his listeners. (These two CPO CDs each have 50 and 57 tracks respectively.)

The musical differences are very apparent from the outset. There’s a lot of major key music for one thing, something almost entirely absent from Bach’s Passions, and throughout it’s abundantly clear that Handel was an opera composer: the dotted “French” rhythms of the opening chorus are inherently theatrical and draw attention to themselves rather than, to my ears at least, directing the listener to contemplation of the spiritual. Furthermore, the recitatives are noticeably more dramatic, the short, punchy phrases lending themselves much more naturally to the theatrical treatment of keeping the story going. Furthermore, Brockes’ narrative places itself inside the characters’ heads so as to give an interior reflection from their point of view. Bach never does this, instead reflecting on the action through the externalities of the arias and chorales, which keep us at something of a distance. I found it rather exciting to have the textual narrative enlivened so much in this manner and, while I imagine it would have horrified Bach’s Leipzig paymasters, it’s great to hear how the Hanoverians did the Passion narrative so differently.

It also drew some delightful music from Handel. This work shows the young composer firing on all cylinders, conjuring up dramatically exciting choruses and some sensationally beautiful arias that wonderfully capture the tone of pious contemplation. I defy anyone to listen to Peter’s aria, after his denial, and not wonder at the masterly way the composer combines theatrics and piety to evoke Peter’s mixture of awe and remorse; while the duet for Mary and her dying son is a masterstroke, the throbbing oboes mimicking the steady ebbing away of Christ’s blood.

Concerto Copenhagen’s orchestral sound is delightful. The band is small, with lithe, agile strings, and the wind solos are gorgeous, with a particular spicy oboe that cuts through the tone delightfully. The choruses also benefit from the small forces, giving a beautifully transparent reading of the big dramatic numbers. You really hear the daylight through the sound in the opening chorus, and they participate in the drama with great immediacy while also achieving quiet solemnity in the chorales.

Lars Ulrik Mortensen has assembled a great team of soloists, too. Ed Lyon makes an agile, flexibly responsive narrator, with excellent diction, and Peter Harvey is a beautifully contemplative Jesus, conjuring up wonderful vocal aerobics in the arias. Gwilym Bowen sounds fantastic as Peter, humane and desolate when he has to be, and also producing some sensationally sympathetic tone in the arias. Jakob Bloch Jespersen has less to do, but makes an enormous amount out of the dramatically essential role of Caiphas and Pilate. Daniel Carlsson’s alto makes Judas sound vulnerable and fragile without making him sympathetic.

The three sopranos are very well contrasted. Maria Keohane’s pure tone is perfectly suited for a work of such contemplative concentration, and Joanne Lunn has a gorgeous richness to her voice that makes her a perfect partner, while Hanna Zumsande is slightly more brittle and, therefore, more dramatic.

Above all, Mortensen directs the work as though he is completely convinced by it. And why wouldn't he be? It’s not Bach, but it’s a wonderful alternative that we should hear much more of. An alternative Academy of Ancient Music recording, which I haven’t heard, was released around the same time as this one, and if it’s largesse to have two simultaneous new recordings of a comparative rarity then that, perhaps, is a positive sign of changing times. Both Handel’s work and this performance are warmly recommended to diversify your Eastertide listening.

Simon Thompson

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