The German poet, Barthold Heinrich Brockes, was an almost exact contemporary of J.S. Bach. He was born in Hamburg in 1680 and lived to 1747. Although we should call his specifically poetic works "minor", Brockes was an accomplished and influential figure in pre-Enlightenment Germany: he translated Alexander Pope and James Thomson's "Seasons", opening the way, in part, for German poets to write the kind of nature poetry that had become common in England by the middle of the eighteenth century. He held political and legal office, and his texts were set by Handel, Fasch, Mattheson, Stölzel and Keiser, among others; there are over a dozen documented settings of this Passion alone. Brockes, whose influences are many (he visited Italy, France and the Netherlands), championed the appointment of Telemann in Hamburg. For Bach lovers, and anyone familiar with the surviving Bach passions, Brockes has another importance: it's thought that Bach, who certainly knew the work, performed Der für die Sünden der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus (Jesus martyred, dying for the world's sins) himself on Good Friday 1739 at the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig; he included some of its verses in his St. John Passion too.
Telemann's (1681-1767) Brockes-Passion, Der für die Sünden der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus, was published in 1712. It soon became one of the most celebrated texts of its kind in Germany. Such a work differs from the Bach passions in that it is a "Passion oratorio": it's based on poetry that is newly, or specially written for it and usually performed in concerts. Bach's are "oratorio Passions": existing, Biblical, texts are set with little or no contemporary "color", other than recitative and contemplative aria; they usually form part of a liturgical event.
As a successful composer of opera, it's logical that Telemann should be drawn to the intensity and excitement of the Passion oratorio. Indeed, he is known to have written five such between 1716 and 1756 – in addition to the oratorio Passions which he wrote almost every year between 1722 and 1767. By the same token it's logical that René Jacobs should have chosen to make what will become a landmark recording of the dramatic and dynamic poetry which supports this music. From first note to last there is tension, pulse and compulsion – in several senses of that word: the plot moves inexorably to the sacrifice and its expiation; the listener never relaxes (as can be the case in Bach's Passions – during their most reflexive moments); the orchestra is ever seeking new and imaginative ways to support and underpin both the singers and their story. Telemann was obviously in earnest: listen, for example, to the urgency of "Nein, diesen nicht" [CD2.tr.3] howling for Christ's blood, over that of Barabbas. And it takes a special engagement with the tone of the music and a thorough understanding of the idiom (one with which listeners are unlikely to be so familiar as with that of the oratorio Passions) for this declamatory music to sound its natural best.
Indeed, there are many occasions when the instrumentalists are asked to employ special effects… sul ponticello bowing for Christ's agony; some extraordinary wind playing – Xenia Löffler's oboe, in the opening Sinfonia [CD1.tr.1], for example, is remarkable. Similarly, the text paints many vivid pictures: onomatopoeia is used to evoke nature, for example: "Brich brüllender Abgrund". And, although Mattheson termed Telemann's style here "sacred opera", piety is not lost: think of the drama of Verdi's requiem for an analogous comparison. Emotion is uppermost in the writing. Jacobs elicits and controls it admirably. There is never any sense of abandon. But at the same time not a bar of stuffiness. Above all, Jacobs has succeeded in integrating the music's arias, duets, recitatives, choruses, ariosos and chorales into much more than an extended cantata. Passion informs the whole two hours and twenty minutes we get on these two highly attractive CDs.
The soloists are strong. Meticulously, they articulate every nuance and subtlety without preciousness. Teuscher (Mary), Behle (Evangelist) and Weisser (Christ) in particular bring great depth and acumen to their accounts. One might have wished for a slightly stronger sense of interaction between soloists, given the dramatic milieu that is conveyed so successfully in every other way. But that's not a significant drawback at all. The poetry itself does most of the work. These six soloists do more than stage a series of static tableaux. They retain all necessary dignity and their detachment increasingly augments the sense of gravity which Telemann ineffably creates.
The playing of the RIAS Kammerchor and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin is first class throughout. Keen, crisp, gentle where restraint is needed, expressive and enthusiastic without ever a hint of bombast or spurious melodrama it's nevertheless full of momentum, threat, pathos and power. Individual members of the Akademie (playing some three dozen instruments) give great pleasure for sweetness of tone, vibrancy of color and the negotiation of many tricky passages. There are moments of the Passion that are violent, brutal almost:
Erwäg, ergrimmte Natterbrut
was deine Wut und Rachgier tut!
Den Schöpfer will ein Wurm verdeben,
Ein Mensch bricht über Gott den Stab!
Dem Leben sprecht ihr's Leben ab,
Des Todes Tod soll durch euch sterben!
It's to Jacobs' credit that this well-blended set of musical forces comes across as an approachable and not histrionic whole, worthy of the nature of the theme. It ought not to be too fanciful to hope that this performance comes close to one to which audiences (not congregations) warmed during Telemann's lifetime. Significantly, Telemann's Brockes-passion is likely to give pleasure on many repeated listenings – ideally with a firm place in the repertoire now.
If there has to be a minor cavil, it would be that, for whatever reason, Jacobs has cut four arias from the Brockes-Passion. If this is to be the reference recording (and it is!), then surely it'd be preferable to have it complete.
This is also a beautifully produced pair of CDs: the booklet is lavishly illustrated with contemporary engravings, musical examples, excellent essays – and of course the libretto in German, then French and English. The acoustic is close, focused and appropriate in every way to the Passion. Recorded in March 2008 in the Teldex studio in Berlin, it brings out the essence of all the voices and instruments in a highly pleasing way. This set – and Harmonia Mundi for its continuing commitment to innovation and quality – seem sure to win multiple prizes for a release that is both spectacular because of its performance and production standards; and extremely satisfying for the repertoire. No other recordings exist – Nicholas McGegan's Hungaroton version is long deleted. A real winner and one recommended without hesitation.
Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey