WHILE J. S. Bach’s two most famous Passions are as familiar as any music, it seems extraordinary that Handel’s, the superlative Brockes-Passion, should be so little known.
A new recording, on its own label (AAM 007) by the Academy of Ancient Music, presided over with wisdom and insight by its conductor Richard Egarr, with 12 first-rate soloists, might hopefully change that.
The work could easily be performed by choral societies employing just four or five lead singers doubling roles, or some units allocated to gifted chorus members; so it is not expensive to put on. Indeed, as the playing (on period instruments) of this ensemble easily makes clear, the setting contains just as many ravishing solo arias as Bach’s, and some unusually inspiring recitatives, too.
With 105 numbers listed here, many of them as enthralling as the soloists themselves — Robert Murray (Evangelist), Elizabeth Watts (the Daughter of Zion), Rachael Lloyd (Mary), and Gwilym Bowen (Peter) stand out — this is a three-part CD, the third of which includes several variant arias, and, in particular, 14 passages sung in the English translation by Handel’s soon-to-be regular colleague, Charles Jennens, later librettist of Messiah and a clutch of early oratorios.
The German text of Handel’s work was taken from a famous version by Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747), a Hamburg poet whose libretto Der für die Sünden der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus (1712), a poetic meditation on the Passion, was also, famously at the time, set by Handel’s celebrated contemporaries Reinhard Keiser, Telemann, Mattheson, and Fasch. Indeed, Bach drew on it in part for his St John Passion a decade later.
This recording scores in every respect. It reveals ideally the bewitching qualities of both text and Handel’s music. Furthermore, Egarr’s treatment seems perfectly calibrated from start to finish.
One feature of Handel’s inspired management is a series of what are here (and presumably in the original) described as “soliloquies”: a sequence of consecutive movements for any one singer and role: not just the more familiar recitative-aria (with sometimes additional closing recitative), but aria-recitative-aria; indeed, sometimes more, up to four or, in one instance, five pieces. The last is for the soprano Daughter of Zion, the chief dramatic commentator on the action, as well as deliverer of the touching meditative sections by Brockes.
These are akin to, and well on a par with, the work of Bach’s collaborators Henrici or Erdmeister, and are sung here by Watts with deep sensitivity, mastery of patches of dazzling coloratura, and excellence in lower as much as high register. They are among the outstanding elements of this beautifully balanced recording.
Many movements have both a variety and a vitality matching anything in Handel’s Italian operas. Not surprisingly, there are some close similarities, as opera was his concern of the day (it dates from before 1719). But, while the orchestra has many lively passages that are virtuosic in themselves, Egarr never allows them to outbalance the soloists. The work, while spirited, is never less than devotional. When the instruments are let off the leash, it is always enhancing and uplifting.
The Evangelist, a narrative and linking role in the traditional manner, is sung by Murray (tenor), who brings a fine eloquence and a voice of immense beauty and tenderness. A well-chosen performer, the American bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum sings Christ, and again the quality is of the highest, his sections notable (as other solo sections can be) for an independent orchestral bass line supplied by Handel.
The scattered chorales, movingly interpolated, are notable for some unusual and evocative independent orchestral touches. Where the continuo features just chamber organ and viol, the results can be shiveringly beautiful. The solo violin preface to one central aria could easily be by that master of the instrument, Handel’s and Bach’s Salzburg contemporary Biber, while the start of one vocal trio feels almost a forerunner of that in Mozart’s Così.
Altogether, this is a sensational set of discs. The booklet, however, which is packed with superb information and scholarly explanation, is higgledy-piggledy. Worst is that the track numbers are not listed in the text. For any listener, that is a disaster.
Several CD versions of Handel’s Brockes-Passion can be found on Amazon, and and also at Presto Classical, which also stocks the admired setting by Reinhard Keiser.