- HWV 48 -
DG/Archiv 463 644-2
Reissue in the DG 'Originals' series
(Recorded in 1967.)
Tochter Zion: Maria Stader, soprano
Maria / Gläubige Seele: Edda Moser, soprano
Johannes / Judas / Gläubige Seele: Paul Esswood, countertenor
Evangelist / Gläubige Seele: Ernst Haefliger, tenor
Peter: Jerry J. Jennings, tenor
Jesus: Theo Adam, bass
Caiphas / Pilate / Hauptmann / Gläubige Seele: Jakob Stämpfli, bass
Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (on modern instruments)
August Wenzinger, conductor
If not for J.S. Bach, Handel's Passion setting would be heard more often, and rated higher than its current neglect allows. The worthy respect given to Bach's two great Passions eclipses all other contributions to the genre, and this can be to the detriment of Handel's fine work: a powerful and muscially engaging setting that influenced J.S. Bach's text and music for the St. John Passion. The Passion play by Barthold Heinrich Brockes was popular in early 18th century Germany, and set to music by composers including Keiser, Mattheson, Telemann, and Fasch. It is not known why Handel, already enjoying a career in London, composed a profoundly Lutheran Passion in 1715. Apart from the 9 German Arias composed during the 1720s, the Brockes Passion was to be Handel's final essay in the artistic forms of his homeland.
Handel's Passion oratorio is a valid contrast to Bach's more familiar settings: it is less reliant on chorales, turba choruses are brief, Jesus and Peter are not just confined to recitatives, the Tochter Zion ("Daughter of Zion") dominates more than the Evangelist, and Handel's arias are more operatic and stylistically varied. It is a fundamental mistake to expect a fast paced narrative drama: Handel, like Bach, was trained as a Lutheran organist and understood that the Passion play is a firmly contemplative drama, motivated by psychology rather than operatic emotions. As is often typical with Handel's music, we can identify moments in the score that echo earlier and later compositions. Several ideas were developed in the first English oratorio Esther only three years later. The most remarkable of these similarities is Christ's dignified suffering in Gethsemane, a moving bass arioso that became Haman's futile yet desperate plea for mercy: despite the paradoxical characterisation, Handel's music is perfect for both situations. There are also hints at Acis and Galatea, and even a continuo ritornello that developed into Sesto's "Cara speme" from Giulio Cesare in 1724.
Recorded in the summer of 1967, August Wenzinger's interpretation sounds dated but remains compelling. Wenzinger was one of the original pioneers of historically informed performance, and even if the string sound seems heavy to some modern ears, Wenzinger's control of vibrato seems minimal compared to Richter's turgid contemporary account of Samson. Recitatives are un-telescoped (i.e. each cadence is delayed) which could test the patience of a listener used to more urgency in the narrative. But Wenzinger's reverent conducting does not drag; tempos are excellently judged - some are surprisingly fast - and the richly textured oboes of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis are satisfyingly prominent. Almost every one of the remarkable singers would stand up well in a modern HIP performance, especially the superb soprano Edda Moser, whose sublime "Wass Wunder, dass der Sonnen Pracht" is a timely example that some sopranos before Emma Kirkby could sing Handel without using excessively wide vibrato.
An enjoyable period instrument recording of the Brockes Passion was made in 1985 by Nicholas McGegan and Capella Savaria (Hungaroton HCD 12734-36), but also has weaknesses. If the catalog continues to annually expand with new recordings of Bach's Passions, it certainly has room for one more stylish and thoughtful performance of Handel's work.
© David Vickers - September 2001
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