300th anniversary of the first performance of Handel’s Brockes Passion celebrated at Wigmore Hall  

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Brockes Passion: Sandrine Piau (soprano), Stuart Jackson (tenor), Konstantin Krimmel (baritone), Arcangelo and vocal consort / Jonathan Cohen (director, harpsichord). Wigmore Hall, London, 8.10.2019. (AK)

Handel’s Brockes Passion at Wigmore Hall (c) Arcangelo/Julian Forbes

Barthold Heinrich Brockes’ version of the Passion story, completed in 1712, was not intended for liturgical performance. Nevertheless, his libretto inspired several composers to create their Brockes Passion. Keiser (1712), Mattheson (1718), Telemann (1716) and Fasch (1723) all created oratorios on Brockes’ text, and so did Handel sometime between 1715 and 1717. Handel’s Brockes Passion received its first performance three hundred years ago, in 1719, in Hamburg. Brockes’ text does not quote from the Bible; its musical settings were performed outside church services, often in private houses. It is, therefore, wholly appropriate to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the first performance of Handel’s Brockes Passion at such venue as the Wigmore Hall.

Although often operatic in musical style, Handel’s setting is likely to have assumed chamber music association with the venues which initially presented versions of Brockes’ Passion. Jonathan Cohen is a chamber musician of high quality (violoncello, harpsichord), thus his Arcangelo ensemble functions as a chamber music group. The vocal consort of eight excellent singers, two singers to a part in the chorus numbers, furthered the intimacy of Cohen’s chamber music approach. I hasten to add that none of Handel’s dramatic strength was downscaled. On the contrary; strong rhythm, transparent polyphony and virtuoso delivery combined into a truly dramatic performance. As the saying goes, it is not the quantity but the quality what matters.

We do not know for sure how musicians sang and played their instruments three-hundred years ago. Standard theory books from the time which describe performing techniques can be interpreted with variations. Surviving instruments can also indicate a variety of possibilities.   Not surprisingly, Baroque performance style, and even Baroque pitch, depends on who is performing. Of the several Baroque ensembles which I heard in recent months, it is Cohen’s Arcangelo which seems to represent the most credible Baroque style. Just one to a part, more often than not the string players create resonating air between notes. The oboes and bassoons match these sounds, ably supported by the harpsichord and the lute. Crisp, clear and virtuoso are the three words which might best describe Cohen and his Arcangelo ensemble.

I am not sure how long Handel’s Brockes Passion is. Cohen’s performance seems to have cut five arias (which are included in Felix Schroeder’s critical edition, HHA, 1965) but we heard a soprano aria early in the piece which does not show up in Schroeder. Even with the cuts, the length is considerable: it is not far off from three hours. However, the sustained drama and beauty of this performance made time fly.

Of the three designated solo singers – apart from solo singers of the consort assembled for this concert – tenor Stuart Jackson (Evangelist) must be mentioned first. His dramatic vocal delivery, his ability to word-paint with a great variety of tonal colours as well as with nuanced variation of dynamics would have made Handel and Brockes deeply satisfied. Jackson has excellent posture and seems to have endless energy. He sang with the Arcangelo Baroque style but more than once during the performance I thought of him as the ultimate Parsifal.

Baritone Konstantin Krimmel (Jesus) looked the part of Jesus, furthermore he sang beautifully with style and variety. However, I would have preferred a bass for the role. I hasten to admit that I do not know what the highest and lowest pitches for Jesus are. For me, soprano Sandrine Piau (Daughter of Zion) was slightly disappointing. Her strength and virtuosity are remarkable but her vibrato and pitch on some of her high notes jarred with all other performers. I do not know if there are many singers who are capable and strong enough to deliver this highly dramatic and strenuous vocal part, so credit is due to Piau in spite of my slight disappointment.

The eight singers of the vocal consort combined as a perfect ensemble but they were also exceptional solo singers in several arias. It is a shame that they did not have more recognition in the programme notes. Their names and tonal registers are listed but it was not easy to identify who sang which aria. Yet they delivered spell-binding virtuosity, heart-warming beauty and the Arcangelo style.

Each member of the orchestral ensemble fits the Arcangelo concept perfectly. It is impossible to describe all what was excellent but the virtuosity of the two oboe players in the chorus ‘Pfui! Seht mir doch den neuen Kőnig an’ and the exceptional ensemble of the duet between one of the two consort tenors (here as Gläubige Seele, Faithful Soul) and first violinist Michael Gurevich (with his syncopating accompaniment) in ‘Es scheint, da den zerkerbten Rükken’ must be mentioned.

Last but not least full praise to cellist Piroska Baranyai. Several of the arias have just a solo cello (and chordal harpsichord) accompaniment. The cello part is often an equal partner to the solo voice, introducing the aria and then joining the voice as if in a duet. Hungarian Piroska Baranyai excelled in sensitivity as well as in virtuosity. My Hungarian ex-cellist heart was jealous (of not playing this cello part) but also overjoyed. The future is in good hands.

Agnes Kory