More and more of Handel’s vocal works which until recently would be designated “rarely performed” are falling into the category of “less often heard” or even “here we go again”. Brockes-Passion is still something of a rarity, certainly when compared with Messiah or Giulio Cesare, but opportunities to hear it are becoming more frequent. It is an unusual work for Handel, probably composed in 1715 and first performed (as far as we know) in Hamburg in 1719. Thus it is an early work, and might even be seen as experimental.

Sebastian Kohlhepp © Julia Wesely
Sebastian Kohlhepp
© Julia Wesely

The text was written by German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes, who also provided the words for the Neun Deutsche Arien, and was acquainted with Handel and Telemann. In what might be construed as a somewhat competitive endeavour, his Passion text was set by Keiser, Telemann and Mattheson as well as Handel. It is unusual for Handel because it is completely in German, the choir has far less to do than in the standard Handel oratorio, and it combines several different genres – north German chorale, the Passion style of commentary, and operatic arias – in often quite short bursts. This somewhat shreds and patches effect lessens the narrative coherence, although in the performance under consideration here, it did seem to become more of a dramatic continuum in the last quarter. Written as one part (and hearing it performed like that is something of a test of fortitude), a break was provided on this occasion between the chorale “Ach, Gott und Herr” and the Evangelist’s recitative “Als Jesus nun”, about a third of the way in. 

Whatever reservations one might have about the work itself , one can hardly imagine a better performance. The always excellent FestspielOrchester Göttingen surpassed themselves here, with the most subtle attentive reading by conductor Laurence Cummings, with such details as the very small musical pause marking the Crucifixion. Concertmaster Elizabeth Blumenstock, as well as her usual immaculate leadership also provided a beautiful violin solo in the aria “Dem Himmel gleicht”. The overture, imbued with a little more gravitas than usual, also included nice work for the oboes (Susanne Regel and Kristin Linde), as did many other parts of the work. The basso continuo section (cello Phoebe Carrai, theorbo David Tayler, harpsichord Hanneke van Proosdij) worked hard of course, but also held their own in a handful of continuo arias.

Apart from the four German chorales, there are not the major commenting choruses we find in the later English oratorios, perhaps because that work is done here by the Evangelist. The choir however does have an important dramatic role in providing interjections at key moments. The NDR Chor (directed by Bart Van Reyn) is a wonderful instrument these days, tightly disciplined and with impeccable diction, and the chorales themselves were simply lovely.

As pointed out, the main narrative glue in this, as in most Passions, comes from the Evangelist who comments, and occasionally interacts, throughout, but has no actual arias. This role was assumed by fine German lyric tenor Sebastian Kohlhepp, who turned in an energetic expressive performance. The real music burden is carried by the Tochter Zion (Daughter of Zion) who has some seventeen arias, ariosi, duets etc to deliver. She was sung by seasoned Dutch Baroque soprano Johannette Zomer, with constant clean straight tone throughout, skilfully negotiating florid passages when necessary in some of the more operatic arias.

Second soprano was the less well known but no less excellent Ana Maria Labin; she took the shared part of the Gläubige Seele (or believing soul), an allegorical entity who mostly provides further commentary, on the emotional state of Jesus in particular. She also sang the parts of Maria and Johannes. Her voice is strongly projected and even, with warm silvery tones, and a fine turn for decoration and nuanced emphasis used to good dramatic effect. There is also a tenor Gläubige Seele who has two arias, sung by Englishman Rupert Charlesworth with considerable power in “Brich, brüllender Angbrund”, but who also evinced warm passionate tone as Petrus. 

Jesus, as well as the bass Gläubige Seele, was sung by Tobias Berndt, who provided strong accurate resonant singing. The sextet of soloists was completed by countertenor David Erler, who sang Jakobus, Judas, a Kriegsknecht and yet another Gläubige Seele. He has quite a high tessitura, singing in good open voice, with sharp dramatic instinct. The trio for Gläubigen Seelen, “O Donnerwort!” involved Labin, Erler and Berndt blending effectively, with the last line “Es is vollbracht” floated very beautifully.

One should mention the soloists drawn from among the choristers for minor parts who were unusually strong for such roles: soprano Gesine Grube (first Magd), mezzo-soprano Gabriele-Betty Klein (second Magd), soprano Dorothee Risse-Fries (third Magd), baritone Dávid Csizmár (Caiaphas), bass Fabian Kuhnen (Pilatus), and bass Andreas Pruys (Hauptmann), the last two making a particularly strong impression.

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