Telemann: Brockes-Passion

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COMPOSERS: Telemann
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Brockes-Passion
PERFORMER: Birgitte Christensen, Lydia Teuscher (soprano), Marie-Claude Chappuis (mezzo-soprano), Donát Havár, Daniel Behle (tenor), Johannes Weisser (baritone); RIAS Chamber Choir; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 902013-14

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When Telemann’s Brockes-Passion was first performed in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1716 it caused quite a stir. Critics praised it to the skies and Telemann himself later noted that his Passion ‘caused choir stalls and chancels in many German towns to be filled with sound’.

What is it about Barthold Heinrich Brockes’s text that not only inspired Telemann but also sufficiently intrigued Bach to copy it out in full and to use portions of it in his own St John Passion? And why did it attract so many composers within a short space of time, among them Keiser (1712), Handel (1716) and Stölzel (1725)?

The answers are perhaps to be found in its dramatic possibilities and, more generally, in changing attitudes of the time towards religion and formal worship. Brockes was a Hamburg contemporary of Bach and Telemann. His text is not of the liturgical kind familiar to us through Bach’s surviving Passions but rather one which reflects the newer values of the German Enlightenment, replacing Biblical narrative with poetic paraphrase.

René Jacobs has been an eloquent advocate for Telemann’s vocal music, notably with his recording of the opera Orpheus. Now, 18 years after Nicholas McGegan’s recording (Hungaroton, currently deleted) comes Jacobs’s take on this richly rewarding score.

The highly charged emotional language and often startlingly vivid imagery of Brockes’s text evidently fired Telemann’s imagination, enabling him to create a piece whose sustained musical interest with passages of considerable dramatic impact is likely to have wide appeal. None of this is lost on Jacobs who has mustered, with characteristic discernment, a highly responsive cast of soloists.

Daniel Behle is a communicative Evangelist, responding alertly to Telemann’s elegantly shaped recitative; his is a far stronger account than the tonally wayward Martin Klietmann in the older version. As Jesus, Johannes Weisser brings warmth and appropriate gravitas. The remaining cast, fresh-voiced, lightly articulated and agile, gives uninterrupted pleasure, and that goes for the excellent RIAS Chamber Choir too. In short all concerned seem to have embraced the work’s graphic style.

Telemann immediately draws us into the Passion with a poignant C minor Sinfonia, characterised by dissonant harmony and contrasting virtuoso oboe writing. The arias are varied in form and character and there are several scenes to which Telemann brings a fervent vibrancy. Among the most deeply felt are those of Peter’s denial and the extended scene of Christ’s Passion containing a sequence of expressive arias for the Daughter of Zion, who plays an important role in the drama, and a Faithful Soul.

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My only regret is that Jacobs, ‘for reasons of dramatic coherence’, has omitted four (not six, as stated in the booklet) of the work’s arias; surely these could have been included as an addendum, especially as two of them are rather good. An exciting release, nonetheless. Nicholas Anderson