Composers: Handel
Compositions: Brockes-Passion
Performers: Academy of Ancient Music/Richard Egarr
Catalogue Number: Academy Of Ancient Music AAM007

Whips, scourges, sinews, blood and pus: where Bach’s two Passions lament from a contemplative distance, Handel’s plunges right to the bone, to the cruel, tortured death that is the heart of the Easter story. Perhaps that explains the work’s recent neglect. But with this performance from the Academy of Ancient Music, as well as a brand-new performing edition by Leo Duarte, maybe the tide is finally turning.

Premiered 300 years ago, the Brockes-Passion – a setting of poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes’s popular Passion oratorio, which dissolves all four Gospel accounts into vivid if sometimes rather moralising poetry – looks on the Crucifixion with an opera-composer’s eye for drama. While Bach’s action emerges veiled, mediated through the Evangelist, no fewer than nine soloists give Handel’s narrative first-person immediacy.

Probably composed in 1715, some 15 years before Handel would turn his focus to oratorio, it’s an experimental work that binds together two separate but intersecting layers of drama: the action of Jesus, Judas, Caiaphas and Peter, and the reactive, contemplative responses of the Daughter of Zion and the Faithful Souls. The effect is of cutaways – the music cinematic in its swift repositioning, now zooming in close enough to see the sweat on Jesus’s brow, now stepping back to transform the bleeding stripes on his back into a rainbow. The lens even pivots directly onto the audience, heavily implicated and directly addressed by Brockes’ uncompromising text.

With over 40 arias and so many soloists the sheer abundance of both Handel’s oratorio and the AAM’s recording is overwhelming. Richard Egarr has assembled a rich cast, led by Cody Quattlebaum’s warmly human Jesus whose Mein Vater, Mein Vater pleads for mercy with unbearable simplicity, and Elizabeth Watts’ mercurial Daughter of Zion. Cut off from the action, she must be our spokesperson and musical face, shifting from painful contemplation of the violence of the Crucifixion (Heil der Welt) to its bizarrely erotic beauty (Die Rosen kronen).

But it’s the tenors who really catch the ear, whether it’s Robert Murray’s Evangelist,  trumpet-like in his anger in Erwag ergrimmte Natternbrut, or Gwilym Bowen’s fallible, conflicted Peter, whose Nehmt mich mit turns shame into the loveliest of musical surrenders.

The AAM play elegantly for Egarr throughout, and a recording combining a live Barbican performance and several later sessions offers exemplary clarity and quality. Buy this account in physical form and you get a 200-page booklet complete with essays by editor Duarte, Dr Ruth Smith and Professor Joachim Whaley among others, all filling out this unfamiliar work’s rich context. It all adds up to an irresistible product that promises to put the end to Bach’s Easter monopoly.

Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music’s recording of the Handel Brockes-Passion is Limelight‘s Recording of the Month in January/February. Read our interview with Richard Egarr here.

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