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Georg Philipp Telemann: Brockes-Passion
19 Mar 2009

TELEMANN: Brockes-Passion

Heinrich Brockes’s famous poetic setting of the Passion, Der für die Sünden der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus (1712), was one of the most significant devotional texts of its day in Germany.

Georg Philipp Telemann: Brockes-Passion

Birgitte Christensen, Lydia Teuscher, sopranos; Marie-Claude Chappuis, mezzosoprano; Donát Havár, Daniel Behle, tenors; Johannes Weisser, baritone; RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin; René Jacobs, director.

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A so-called “passion oratorio,” Brockes’s text is a fully versified account of the Passion of Jesus, harmonized from the various Gospel accounts. The perhaps more familiar model from Bach’s two passions is that of the “oratorio passion,” where a single Biblical account is preserved verbatim, with modern poetry and chorales interposed in the form of arias and choral or congregational song. If less familiar in our day, nevertheless Brockes’s text in its own time achieved great visibility through its frequent publication as a devotional text and in musical settings by Keiser (1712), Telemann (1716), Handel (1716), Mattheson (1718), Stölzel (1725), and Fasch (1723). Portions of the poem also appear in Bach’s St. John Passion.

Brockes was a native of Hamburg and from 1720 an active member of the government. Telemann also had a long association with Hamburg as Kantor and Music Director, appointments that began in 1721 and likely reveal the influence of the poet. Several years ealier (1716), Telemann had given performances of his setting of the Brockes Passion in Frankfort, where he was then municipal music director and chapel master at the Barfüsserkirche; these performances were repeated in Hamburg from 1718-1720. Thus, in at least a professional capacity, Telemann and Brockes would have been well known to each other. In Hamburg the requirements for new Passion settings would see Telemann compose over forty liturgical passions, a prolific response to a common Kantorial need. But the setting of the Brockes Passion has gained a significance and prominence beyond its sibling works. Consequently, this excellent new recording by René Jacobs and his forces is an especially welcome one.

Jacobs has shaped his reading of Telemann’s colorful score with a compelling dramatic sense. Somewhat surprisingly, the absence of prose in the libretto does not impede the dynamism and forward motion of the narrative, and the arias themselves are frequently short and rarely da capo. Occasionally units cohere to create something akin to a “cantata-as-scene.” For instance, early in the oratorio, Jesus pleads for mercy in a lyric aria (“Mein Vater! Schau, wie ich mich quäle”), followed by his recounting of the torments he bears in an accompanied recitative; this is then followed by a return of the aria music to a second stanza of text, reminiscent of structural patterns found in cantatas. We may tarry a bit in the “cantata,” but more typical is a sense of dramatic impulsion, animated by strong, vivid, and quick contrasts. For instance, following Peter’s denial, the penitent disciple sings of his regret in lamentative tones, which turn menacing with the text’s turn to Satan’s laugh. Similarly strong contrasts are found throughout the oratorio, including in the unusual attention given to Judas’s tortured resolution to hang himself, immediately followed by the Daughter of Zion’s pastoral reflection on God’s grace.

Brockes’s text imagery is drawn with a bold pen. Here, in an aria sung by a Faithful Soul, you get both an example of the vivid nature of the language and the characteristic dynamic of contrast:

His [Jesus’s] bloodstained back resembles Heaven
Adorned with countless rainbows,
Like signs of pure grace,
Which, where the guilty flood of our sins runs dry,
Shows us the radiant sun of his dear love
In the streams of his blood.

The vividness of Brockes’s language is well served by Telemann’s colorful approach to the score. Obbligato instrumental lines for oboe, flutes, recorders, and various strings are frequent, often dramatically symbolic, and challenging. Moreover, the orchestra is also given special effects, such as the haunting piercing of Jesus’s flesh in the sound of ponticello string bowing. Certainly one of the more impressive aspects of the recording is the brilliant playing of the orchestral players of Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, with oboist Xenia Löffler offering particularly expressive performances. For their part, the solo singers uniformly embrace dramatic flexibility and fluency of idiom, and do so with compelling expertise—qualities that remind, as well, of the distinctive singing career of Jacobs himself.

Our deep attachment to Bach’s Passions may blind us to the broader contexts in which these beloved works arose. Telemann’s setting of the Brockes Passion is a masterful example of the riches that await our moving beyond the seasonally familiar; Jacobs’s performance is a most gratifying way to begin that journey.

Steven Plank

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