Handel: St John Passion

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COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Vox Temporis
WORKS: St John Passion
PERFORMER: Jan Van Elsacker (tenor), Lieven Termont (baritone), Patrick Van Goethem (alto); Vocal Ensemble Ex Tempore, Le Mercure Galant Baroque Orchestra/Florian Heyerick
CATALOGUE NO: VTP CD 92 036 (distr. Art and Music Consultants, Belgium; tel +32 2465 9870; fax +32 2365 6955)
This Passion text is short, beginning abruptly with Pilate’s scourging of Jesus. It continues in a strikingly short-winded way — fragments of recitative lasting a few seconds, brief ariosos, choruses, including one on a single word, ‘Crucify!’. It lacks chorales: Heyerick has borrowed some from Handel’s later Brockes Passion.

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The music is a jewel-box of small-scale gems, further polished by the quality of the performers – six finely focused solo voices, a transparent choir of 18, and delicate, one-to-a-part strings with pairs of recorders and oboes, a bassoon and continuo organ. Though Heyerick sometimes fails to bind together the slivers of music into a living drama, individual moments are enthralling. Agnes Mellon and Goedele Heidbiichel float effortlessly in gentle thirds and lilting suspensions in two duets. Van Goethem, surprisingly a countertenor Pilate, is (for me) an arresting new voice, with seven ariosos in Part 1. Here Jesus sings only once: Part 2 is dominated in turn by his Words from the Cross.

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Aural evidence supports the scholarly view that the Johannes Passion is not by Handel — a point not admitted until well into the programme notes! The music of course is unaffected, and far too good to miss, whoever wrote it. George Pratt