06 Oct 2019

The Academy of Ancient Music's superb recording of Handel's Brockes-Passion

The Academy of Ancient Music’s new release of Handel’s Brockes-Passion - recorded around the AAM's live performance at the Barbican Hall on the 300th anniversary of the first performance in 1719 - combines serious musicological and historical scholarship with vibrant musicianship and artistry.

Handel’s librettist was the German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747), whom the composer had met during their student days in Halle. Brockes’ text combines elements of the Passion story selected from all four gospels, but while the sacred narrative is well-known, the startlingly rich, raw imagery of the text imbues the drama with an unusually strong human dimension. On Good Friday 1719, when the citizens of Hamburg had the opportunity to hear four settings of Brockes’ Passion text - by Richard Kaiser (1712), Georg Philipp Telemann (1716), Handel (?1716) and Johann Mattheson (1718) - at an event organised by the latter (then director of music at the city’s cathedral), the emotive immediacy of Handel’s Brockes-Passion must have been striking. (See my review of the AAM’s 2019 performance for further information about the Brockes-Passion’s libretto and the work’s historical context.)

The AAM’s presentation of Handel’s Brockes-Passion is handsome. The three discs are enfolded within a deluxe sleeve-box decorated with original artwork by Emma Safe, a portrait of Handel and a manuscript facsimile. They are accompanied by a sumptuous 220-page hardback mini-book containing the libretto (in the form of the original MS text, the sung German text and an English translation) and numerous scholarly articles. The latter are illustrated by performance and recording photographs; manuscript facsimiles; portraits and engravings drawn from significant archival collections at Handel House Museum London, Handel House Halle and the Gerald Coke Handel Foundation; and reproductions of Emma Safe’s mixed media artwork, each of which (Sands to Shore, Thirst Black Maw, Break My Heart, Performance Study) was created as a live response to particular arias during the AAM’s 2019 performance at Barbican Hall.

The extent and diversity of the scholarship and contextual documentation is impressive. Included too are images, transcriptions and translations from the contemporary journal Hamburg Relations-Courier (as published in George Frideric Handel: Collected Documents, vols. 1 and 2, the editorial team of which is led by esteemed Handel scholar Donald Burrows). Thus one can read a detail from a performance announcement for the Brockes-Passion, 21 March 1730: ‘Next Thursday being the 23 March [12 March os], the very famous Passion Oratorio written by His Honour Herr Brockes and composed by Herr Hendel, will be performed in the Drill House here before the most excellent and honourable Council, to begin at half past 4 precisely.’

AAM Cody Q Robert Workman.jpgCody Quattlebaum (Christus).

Alongside such scholarly exploration and assessment, a wealth of insightful personal responses is also offered. It was the discovery of a box-set recording of the Brockes-Passion in a Cambridge record shop during his student days by the AAM’s Music Director, Richard Egarr, that ultimately led, more than 30 years later, to this recording, and Egarr argues persuasively that, alongside masterpieces such as Messiah (1741) and La Resurrezione (1708), the Brockes-Passion is the crowning achievement of Handel’s response to Holy Week, because the composer was setting a text in his own native tongue, responding to the content and nature of the text as a German.

Editor and principal oboist Leo Duarte writes of the process of discriminating between the different manuscript sources of the Brockes-Passion - including recent discoveries, such as a manuscript started by Handel’s principal copyist J.C. Smith and a copy purportedly belonging to Haydn, and most interesting of all, one created for Handel’s friend Elizabeth Legh, a notable collector of his manuscripts from 1715 until her death in 1734. The AAM’s Chief Executive Alexander Van Ingen explains how decisions were made about performing forces while Dr Ruth Smith offers an eloquent and comprehensive account of the text, Handel’s setting and the factors which may have motivated the composer to set Brockes’ words.

The wider context is not neglected. Professor Joachim Whaley and Dr Bettina Varwig provide interesting articles which illuminate how the Brockes-Passion was a product both of ‘the remarkable political, religious and artistic culture of the Holy Roman Empire’, and of Hamburg in 1719, which offered visitors a ‘thriving public concert culture that was, at this time, still rather unusual even in the larger urban centres across Europe’. Handel arrived in London not long before it is believed he composed the Brockes-Passion and excerpts from Jane Glover’s Handel in London: The Making of a Genius inform us about Handel’s early years in the city.

A performer’s view is presented by Joseph Crouch, the AAM’s co-principal cellist, who considers the way an instrumentalist may respond to the text: ‘It is not easy for the cellist’s bow to delineate between the hope for revenge and the hope for salvation!’ writes Crouch, explaining that it is not so much semantics but phonetics to which an instrumentalist responds: ‘Singers work for years on clarity of diction, whether or not they are singing in their native tongue … playing parlante does not mean simply playing non-legato, but rather it involves creating musical phrases made up of words, syllables, vowels and consonants. The baroque string player’s right hand corresponds to the lips, teeth and tongue of the singer.’ It’s fascinating and thought-provoking reading.

On a lighter note, food historian and period cook Seren Charrington-Hollins uses the ‘virtues and faults of Handel’s love affair with food’ as a springboard for wider reflections on 18th-century fare, table manners, street food, including recipe excerpts for delights such as ‘Solid Syllabub’ and ‘Artichoke Bottoms’.

Petrus Gwilym Bowen.jpgGwilym Bowen (Peter).

In my 2019 review, I pondered whether Brockes might be termed the ‘Metastasio of Hamburg’, so numerous were settings of his text. Here, a full list of known and likely performances of musical settings during the years 1712-50 is provided - there are approximately 60, presenting works by 10 composers from Keiser to J.S. Bach, from Mattheson to Telemann - along with a list of recordings and broadcasts of Handel’s and others’ settings of Brockes’ text. Finally, for the first time the text of Charles Jennens’ partial English translation is given in the Appendices - alongside alternatives, variants and additional items in the sources - and the music of both is presented on CD3.

The AAM have not just presented the listener with ‘all one needs to know’ about the Brockes-Passion but have produced a comprehensive and engaging accompaniment to their performance - one which represents the best in scholarly, interdisciplinary, performance-related research.

So, what of the performance itself? The vocal and dramatic immediacy which was so notable in the Barbican Hall is reproduced on the recording, and is in evidence from the first bars of the Symphonia in which punchy lower strings and continuo provide rhythmic propulsion for the fleet violin runs and sweet oboe contributions, before a harmonic turn introduces contrapuntal conversations which are both energised and melodically engaging. Here and throughout, Egarr, while always pushing forward, maintains transparency and clarity, and the engineers have ensured that the sound is bright and equally well-balanced in the choruses and arias. Handel’s melodic invention and ear for instrumental colour in the arias’ frequent instrumental obbligatos have a powerful emotive effect.

Robert Murray’s Evangelist and Cody Quattlebaum’s Jesus particularly benefit from the immediacy of the recorded sound. In the Barbican Hall, placed behind the instrumentalists and in front of the AAM Chorus, they had to work hard to communicate with directness and to sustain the narrative of the recitatives. Here we can more fully enjoy the contrast between Murray’s poised, shapely tenor - tinged, appropriately, with urgency at times - and Quattlebaum’s beautifully tender bass: in particular, the pathos of Jesus’ recitatives seems stronger, as the organ complements rather than obscures the voice. Similarly, during the sequence in which Jesus foretells of Peter’s denial the voices feel more integrated, the drama seems more compelling. Quattlebaum’s plump, dark tone and agility establish the authority of Jesus’ declaration that he will ‘smite the shepherd and the whole flock shall shatter’, while, as Peter, Gwilym Bowen’s responses are insistent yet instilled with a beautiful pathos and sincerity, particularly as the latter’s tenor falls in register.

Mead Judas.jpgTim Mead (Judas).

There are too many ‘highlights’ to term them such. Tension in the pressing string and organ rhythms which support Jesus’ appeal to his Father are matched by Quattlebaum’s intensity as the vocal line almost trembles with anguish, though there is a softening, ever so slight, as Jesus’ resigns himself to the suffering which is his Lord’s will and must be fulfilled.

Elizabeth Watts’ response, as the Daughter of Zion, to the physicality of Jesus’ crucifixion seems almost too calm and pure to articulate her vision of the Saviour’s fear - ‘see how his tongue and lips thirst, hear his whimpering, sighing, longing’ - but her elegant decoration of the da capo repeat, and the delicate string gestures which stroke her vocal line, intimate the passion which breaks free in the soaring concluding image, as ‘Jesus’ body dissolves in blood’. Her riposte to the Soldier who strikes Jesus fairly bristles with a fury made more searing by Handel’s unexpected harmonic stings, but when the Daughter of Zion reflects on the ‘piteous rubies, formed from clotted blood on Jesus’ brow!’, Watts’ soprano has a sheen that seems to reflect the glowing beauty of the figurative jewels. Her admonishments to the ‘brazen sinners’ have a focus and candour that it would be hard to deny.

Bowen’s tenor burns with self-loathing, the text fiercely declaimed, the rapid divisions clear, when Peter calls on ‘poison and fire, lightning and flood’ to ‘engulf the false betrayer’, as the perfectly tuned ensemble of unison strings race and roar; subsequently, the sincerity of his simple plea to share Jesus’ suffering and fate is strengthened by the eloquence of the continuo cello’s melodic echoes and elaborations. If the angularity and fierceness of the accompaniment to Peter’s self-lacerating outburst does not make one squirm with shame, then Bowen’s piercing delivery of the text and Duarte’s mocking oboe obbligato surely will.

Faithful Soul Ruby Hughes.jpgRuby Hughes (Faithful Soul).

The strings’ dotted rhythms fairly seem to tear Judas’ flesh and crush his bones to avenge his deed, as Tim Mead’s rich countertenor swells with almost ecstatic strength to beg that his ‘damned soul’ may suffer ‘in eternal torment’. As a Faithful Soul, Ruby Hughes’ soprano sails with angelic sweetness as if its purity embodies the love that leaps from Jesus’ blood as the soldiers thrash him, while Nicky Spence’s beautifully shaped comments on Jesus’ apparent gratitude to his Father for ‘bestowing on him the cross he long desired’ convey awe and fear. Hughes is joined by Rachael Lloyd and Morgan Pearse for one of the score’s few ensembles: a sonorous trio of reassurance -following Jesus’ cry, ‘It is accomplished’ - that the power of Death and Hell is vanquished and mankind will be redeemed.

The AAM Chorus are in fine voice as the disciples, soldiers and crowd of Jews: their cries to free Barabbas are flung forth with frightening fervour and conviction. But, as so often in Passion settings, it is the chorales that are often most affecting. When the Christian Church hunger for God’s benevolence and nourishment, the vitality and warmth of the voices, complemented by buoyant violins, suggests that the very anticipation of mortal union with God provides sufficient joy and consolation. Their later appeal to God for redemption, despite their sins, is straightforward and honest, and if they are later mortified by those sins, then in the closing chorale the glowing ensemble sound confirms that they are sustained by Jesus’ shed blood and assured of eternal life in death.

In the Barbican Hall, Egarr was not always able to maintain dramatic momentum, particularly in the latter stages of the Brockes-Passion , during the long series of exchanges between the Daughter of Zion and the Faithful Souls. In one’s armchair, this is less of a problem: one can simply enjoy the musical richness and the expressive impact of the performance.

The Brockes-Passion - both Brockes’ text and Handel’s setting of it - may be rooted in its immediate historical context, but the AAM’s recording offers a Passion for all times and all places.

Claire Seymour