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Performances

20 Apr 2019

Handel's Brockes-Passion: The Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall

Perhaps it is too fanciful to suggest that the German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747) was the Metastasio of Hamburg?

The Academy of Ancient Music: Handel’s Brockes-Passion at the Barbican Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: AAM Soloists and Ensemble

Photo credit: The Academy of Ancient Music/Robert Workman

 

But, the meditative, poetic, sacred drama on the Passion story -known as the Brockes-Passion, though its full title is Der für die Sünden der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus aus den vier Evangelisten in gebundener Rede vorgestellt (Jesus who was martyred and died for the sins of the world, presented in verse out of the four Evangelists) - which the Hamburg writer and politician published in 1712 was set almost as many times as some of the Caesarean Poet’s opera seria libretti.

Brockes’ ripe and raw imagery was still hot off the press when it was set by Reinhard Keiser in 1712; Georg Philipp Telemann offered his efforts in 1716. Round about that time (the exact date is unverified), Georg Frideric Handel, then resident in London but a friend of Brockes from their time as students at the University of Halle, composed his Brockes-Passion. Johann Mattheson added to the tally in 1718, and further interpretations by Johann Friedrich Fasch (1723) and Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1725) followed; there were at least five other settings.

The question is - as Dr Ruth Smith asks in her learned, eloquent programme article - what prompted Handel to compose this work, specifically for performance in Hamburg where it was first heard on Good Friday, 3 rd April 1719, 300 years before this performance at the Barbican Hall by the Academy of Ancient Music? Smith essays a few possibilities: the performance tradition which required German Kapellmeisters to produce Passion music each year for Holy Week services did not exist in England; such a work was unsuitable for London’s secular theatres, then Handel’s predominant performance venue; London audiences would have found both the German text and Brockes’ blend of the metaphysical and vividly pictorial similarly distasteful; political unrest in England may have made Handel anxious to keep in with the potential employers in his homeland, should need arise.

We shall probably never know for sure. There is no extant autograph and the various surviving copies - one of which was begun c.1746 by J.S. Bach, who performed Handel’s Brockes-Passion in Leipzig on Good Friday that year, and completed in 1748 by colleagues - disagree in diverse ways. For this AAM performance, Leo Duarte, working with a team of scholars and musicologists, has produced a new edition which takes into account new sources that have come to light since the last critical edition of 1965.

Brockes’ narrative combines elements of the Passion story selected from all four gospels, and two striking aspects of the text are its dramatic immediacy and its very human dimension. The Evangelist plays a minimal narrative role and events are largely presented as experienced in the present tense by the protagonists of the drama - Jesus, Peter, Mary, Judas, Pilate, the Disciples, a Centurion and others - in a chain of arias, ariosos, recitatives, choruses and chorales (the latter kept to a minimum). The 104 (in this edition) separate numbers form a strikingly innovative musico-dramatic sequence.

Evangelist Robert Murray.jpgRobert Murray (Evangelist). Photo credit: The Academy of Ancient Music/Robert Workman.

Thus, the opening Chorus of Faithful Souls, which director/harpsichordist Richard Egarr ensured was hushed and reverential, sing: “To cure me from the festering sores of vice/he allows himself to be wounded./To cover up the stains of my sins,/he must dye them with his own blood. Yes, to grant me everlasting life,/even life itself wishes to die.” Christ’s Passion is corporeal, but his sacrifice is an act of redemption and our liberation is eternal. And, as Smith pointed out in a pre-concert talk, the first word of the text is ‘Mich’ - Christ suffered “To free me from the bonds of my sins,” the Faithful Souls whisper.

Certainly, Brockes ensures the corporeality of Christ’s suffering is viscerally vivid and brutal. Translator Moritz Grimm has retained the astonishingly graphic, often quasi-erotic, conceits of Brockes’ text which abounds with explicit imagery. The Evangelist describes the “terrible convulsions” of Christ’s agony: “he could hardly gasp for pain;/One saw his frail limbs tremble,/his dry mouth barely breathing”; and of his Crucifixion, when the soldiers “scourged his tender back with lashes full of nails”. The Daughter of Zion’s heart dissolves “into tears” at the sight of Jesus’ “pitiful groans”, his “whimpering, sighing, longing”, and imagines his bloodied body with graphic intensity: “the rose itself begins to sweat rubies” and as the “thorns’ inflexible claws so wretchedly [press]” into Jesus’ head, his “delicate temples are perforated and pierced/right through to the bone.” No wonder the contemporary authorities were not very keen on allowing it to be used in liturgical contexts.

Handel, not surprisingly, responds richly, with imagination and concentration, to the intense human emotions to which Brockes’ text gives life, and the AAM soloists - most of whom were seated along a strip of red carpet at the front of the stage - and instrumentalists communicated the musical drama and feeling with compelling commitment and power.

The Daughter of Zion bears much of the burden of reflection on man’s foolishness, cruelty, torment and salvation, and Elizabeth Watts sang with tremendous poise and presence. Her foreboding address to those who “squander God’s grace” - “Know that punishment is already coming/As the fruit of your sins ripens!” - was beautiful and terrifying in equal measure; the piquant harmony of the repetition of the final phrase, the fortissimo weight of the full complement of wind, and the long-bowed chords in the strings seemed to throb with pain and portentousness.

Elizabeth Watts Daughter of Zion.jpgElizabeth Watts (Daughter of Zion). Photo credit: The Academy of Ancient Music/Robert Workman.

Tenor Gwilym Bowen was a superb Peter, capturing the diverse and contradictory emotions experienced by the troubled disciple in an extended sequence in the first part of the Passion. Anger at Judas’ betrayal of Jesus blazed through the running lines of “Poison and fire, lightning and flood”, accompanied by agile unison strings; his avowal that he would not forsake Christ, “Take me with you, cowardly crowd” was sincere and soft, the fine, unwavering line complemented by Sarah McMahon’s eloquent cello obbligato.

The singers in more minor roles each delved to the core of their character’s emotional response. Nicky Spence’s Faithful Soul (tenor) bristled with rage, the lovely warmth of his tenor winning empathy for his indignation; Spence’s rhetorical rise and fermata at the start of the da capo repeat - “Consider”, he commanded the “nest of vipers” - was as transfixing as the softness of his head voice at the close.

Gwilym Bowen Peter.jpg Gwilym Bowen (Peter). Photo credit: The Academy of Ancient Music/Robert Workman.

Judas’ recitative and aria of self-castigation, “Do not leave this deed unavenged,/tear apart my flesh, crush my bones”, was superbly sung by countertenor Tim Mead, the cello’s gravelly tremolos and the harpsichord’s stabbing chords underlying the anguish of his appeal, “open for me the dark path to Hell!” As Pilate, Caiaphas and the Centurion, Morgan Pearse sang with firmness and resonance.

In the second part of the Passion, the female voices are given more prominence and here Ruby Hughes’ fresh, strong soprano and clarity of line conveyed the passionate faith of the Faithful Soul (soprano), while the exchanges between Rachel Lloyd’s Mary and Cody Quattlebaum’s Jesus were persuasively sincere and human.

Da capo arias are less common than usual, and here the repeated A sections were infrequently decorated, which made those expressive elaborations that were offered more affecting. The pathos of the Daughter of Zion’s reprised pain as Jesus’ body dissolves into blood was sharpened by a sudden ascent in pitch and dynamic, against the delicate silkiness of violins; the bitterness of her anger at the Soldier who accuses Jesus of heresy - expressed through the angularity of the violins’ short motifs, the racing scales of the vocal line and the acerbic harmonic twist of a cadential figure - was made more raw by an extravagant final vocal leap.

Duartes’ edition adds four oboes and two bassoons to a seventeen-strong body of strings, supported by theorbo, harpsichord and organ, and though these forces might seem quite limited in timbral range, Handel exploits every potential for colour and texture. The combined violins and oboes enhanced the sweetness of the assurance of grace expressed in Watts’ first aria, while her angry rebuke to the Sinners, “behold with fear and apprehension/the monster of your sins” was coloured by the darker hues of cello, oboe and organ. Duartes’ plangent oboe deepened the pity of Peter’s anguish, so affectingly communicated by Bowen, while leader Bojan Čičić’s obbligato heightened the colour and intensity of the soprano Faithful Soul’s vision of Christ’s lacerated back, brightly hued and resembling “the sky/adorned with countless rainbows”.

Cody Quattlebaum Jesus.jpg Cody Quattlebaum (Jesus). Photo credit: The Academy of Ancient Music/Robert Workman.

Between the solo numbers, short choral interjections broaden the perspective of the drama. In a jaunty chorale, the collective voice of The Christian Church buoyantly anticipated being “united with God, through God!” Later the Disciples, seeing Christ bound with ropes and chains, cried agitatedly, “Come, let us flee and save ourselves!”, the repetitions emphasising their panic and cowardice. Then, in reply to Pilate’s imperious question, “What then shall I do with your so-called king”, the populace’s violent demands were chillingly vigorous: “Away with him!/Let him be crucified!”

I was not wholly convinced by the decision to place Robert Murray’s Evangelist and Cody Quattlebaum’s Jesus at the rear, stage right and left respectively, between orchestra and choir. My impression may have been influenced by my position in the Hall, but it seemed to me that Murray fared best: his tenor, strong and direct, projected cleanly, and he was ever-sensitive to text and situation. Following Pilate’s urgent command to Christ, “And will you say nothing to defend yourself”, the softness of the Evangelist’s simple statement, “And he said nothing more”, was deeply moving. In contrast, Murray’s restatement of Christ’s cries, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthan!”, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” rang through the Hall with real anguish, the feeling deepened by the dark, crushing resonance of the organ. The response from Spence’s Faithful Soul and the strings was an almost apocalyptic fury, conveyed through volcanic rhythmic disruptions and unyielding unisons.

Quattlebaum was nestled behind the organ, cellos and double bass, obscured from my view not only by these instrumentalists but also by his own leonine mane, just as his lovely tender bass seemed sometimes absorbed into the lower instruments colour and timbre. Nor did the positioning aid the drama: Peter’s denial was delivered from the front of the stage, to the audience, with Bowen occasionally glancing over his shoulder to Jesus far behind him. That said, Quattlebaum conveyed both Jesus’ agony and spiritual calm with real conviction: lines such as, “It is certain, for thus has it been written” and “It is accomplished” were replete with composure and assurance. And, the bass’s long, even lyrical lines were beautifully shaped; his attention to the text in ‘My Father, my Father!’ was wonderfully expressive.

The performance began with great vivacity but in the second part Egarr was challenged to sustain the dramatic momentum through the long sequence of somewhat sanctimonious contributions from the Daughter of Zion, with additional reflective commentary from sundry Faithful Souls. Despite Watts’ unceasingly thoughtfulness, care and vocal skill, and the variety of instrumental complements employed - first organ and harpsichord alone, then cello obbligato and lute, for her harsh castigations and violent tirades; and, a soothing balm of woodwind and organ for her address to Christ whose “loving heart melts for love” - it is surely difficult for modern-day audiences to respond to such extended, impassioned reflections with the devout piety that they were intended to arouse in the hearts and minds of liturgical audiences in Handel’s time?

However, at the close, a simplicity returned. Watts’ final command, “Wipe away your bitter tears,/be at peace now, blessed soul!”, was first sung unaccompanied, then intertwined with the benedictions of the oboe, before The Christian Church’s closing chorale delivered unadorned and unquestionable consolation: “You have gained eternal life for me/through your death.”

In autumn 2019, the AAM will release a new recording of Handel’s Brockes-Passion: see https://www.aam.co.uk/brockes/ for further details .

Claire Seymour

Handel: Brockes-Passion HWV 48 (171)

The Academy of Ancient Music - Richard Egarr, director/harpsichord

Evangelist - Robert Murray, Jesus - Cody Quattlebaum, Daughter of Zion - Elizabeth Watts, Faithful Soul (soprano)/Maid 1 - Ruby Hughes, Mary/Faithful Soul (mezzo-soprano)/Maid 2/A Soldier - Rachel Lloyd, Judas - Tim Mead, Peter - Gwilym Bowen, Faithful Soul (tenor) - Nicky Spence, Pilate/Centurion/Faithful Soul (bass)/Caiaphas - Morgan Pearse, Maid 3 - Philippa Hyde, James - Cathy Bell, John - Kate Symonds-Joy, Orchestra and Choir of the AAM.

Barbican Hall, London; 19th April 2019.

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