Amongst various other anniversaries, 2019 was certainly the year of Handel’s Brockes-Passion, marking exactly three centuries since its first known performance. Aside from an outing by Arcangelo and Jonathan Cohen at the Wigmore Hall in the autumn, it was given more prominent and seasonally appropriate exposure on Good Friday by the AAM at the Barbican Centre, who have since followed that up with this fine recording.
It is known that Bach owned a copy of the work, and quite audibly it influenced the St John Passion. Handel’s Passion – setting a well-regarded text by Barthold Heinrich Brockes that is as much a poetic paraphrase and reflection upon the events of Christ’s last days on earth, as a straightforward narrative – is at once both more introspective and meditative than Bach’s vastly better-known settings on the one hand, and more extrovert and theatrical on the other, drawing upon the experience that Handel gained in composing for the opera house which Bach never had.
Richard Egarr’s account with the Academy of Ancient Music is generally lucid and alert, shot through with a subtle dramatic impetus and tension which instil a narrative urgency to the performance overall. The Choir of the AAM combine sinuously with the orchestra to perform the through-composed choruses with a nimble, lilting movement, and the chorales in a more emphatic, punchy manner which has the effect of prompting the listener at those points which interrupt the narrative recitation and call upon a devout audience to take part in what are, effectively, hymns.
The characters which are directly drawn from the Gospel accounts are sung vividly – Cody Quattlebaum’s Jesus exudes warmth and patience, Gwilym Bowen is on a more nervous, excitable edge as the (sympathetically) flawed Peter, and Tim Mead projects an effete wiliness as the betrayer, Judas Iscariot. Straddling the two dimensions of re-telling the story in real historical time and the non-temporal reflection upon its spiritual and theological significance is the Evangelist of Robert Murray, who sings crisply and cogently in a role which – like Bach’s Evangelists – is central to the score but is carried solely through recitative.
Standing apart from the linear unfolding of events is the musically prominent figure of the Daughter of Zion who, although allegorical, articulates the spiritual import of the drama through the poetic musings and imagery of the text supplied by Brockes. Elizabeth Watts offers a movingly varied and expressive execution of the role, from her radiant ‘Sünder, schaut mit Furcht und Zageb’ to the rich vein of compassion which marks ‘Die ihr Gottes Gnad’ versäumet’ where her vibrato emboldens an interpretation which is redolent of an older tradition of contralto singing by the likes of Martha Mödl or Kathleen Ferrier. The four Faithful Souls (or Believers as they are otherwise called) sing with an engaging directness, exhorting the audience to view the Passion narrative through the lens of pious devotion rather than as a neutral bystander.
The luxurious presentation of this release comprises a fold-out case with three CDs and a booklet with full track listings, alongside a separate hardback book of 220 pages with essays and lavish illustrations. Egarr and Leo Duarte’s painstaking examination of the sources for this work has unearthed the variant readings of some movements, or additions – including those for which Charles Jennens made an English translation of the text – which are given on the third CD, providing an unprecedented full account of the work. It sets a benchmark for scholarly presentation and research, providing a wealth of added value to the CDs themselves. The performance, too, sets a new standard in the admittedly small discography of the setting, which is only matched by the broader, older recording by August Wenziger and the Schola Cantorim Basiliensis for those who prefer modern instruments. If Egarr’s achievement does not raise the profile of this obscure but rewarding work afresh, it is unlikely that anything else will.