TELEMANN: Brockes-Passion

A so-called
“passion oratorio,” Brockes’s text is a fully versified
account of the Passion of Jesus, harmonized from the various Gospel accounts.
The perhaps more familiar model from Bach’s two passions is that of the
“oratorio passion,” where a single Biblical account is preserved
verbatim, with modern poetry and chorales interposed in the form of
arias and choral or congregational song. If less familiar in our day,
nevertheless Brockes’s text in its own time achieved great visibility
through its frequent publication as a devotional text and in musical settings
by Keiser (1712), Telemann (1716), Handel (1716), Mattheson (1718), Stˆlzel
(1725), and Fasch (1723). Portions of the poem also appear in Bach’s St.
John Passion.

Brockes was a native of Hamburg and from 1720 an active member of the
government. Telemann also had a long association with Hamburg as Kantor and
Music Director, appointments that began in 1721 and likely reveal the influence
of the poet. Several years ealier (1716), Telemann had given performances of
his setting of the Brockes Passion in Frankfort, where he was then municipal
music director and chapel master at the Barf¸sserkirche; these
performances were repeated in Hamburg from 1718-1720. Thus, in at least a
professional capacity, Telemann and Brockes would have been well known to each
other. In Hamburg the requirements for new Passion settings would see Telemann
compose over forty liturgical passions, a prolific response to a common
Kantorial need. But the setting of the Brockes Passion has gained a
significance and prominence beyond its sibling works. Consequently, this
excellent new recording by RenÈ Jacobs and his forces is an especially welcome

Jacobs has shaped his reading of Telemann’s colorful score with a
compelling dramatic sense. Somewhat surprisingly, the absence of prose in the
libretto does not impede the dynamism and forward motion of the narrative, and
the arias themselves are frequently short and rarely da capo.
Occasionally units cohere to create something akin to a
“cantata-as-scene.” For instance, early in the oratorio, Jesus
pleads for mercy in a lyric aria (“Mein Vater! Schau, wie ich mich
qu‰le”), followed by his recounting of the torments he bears in an
accompanied recitative; this is then followed by a return of the aria music to
a second stanza of text, reminiscent of structural patterns found in cantatas.
We may tarry a bit in the “cantata,” but more typical is a sense of
dramatic impulsion, animated by strong, vivid, and quick contrasts. For
instance, following Peter’s denial, the penitent disciple sings of his
regret in lamentative tones, which turn menacing with the text’s turn to
Satan’s laugh. Similarly strong contrasts are found throughout the
oratorio, including in the unusual attention given to Judas’s tortured
resolution to hang himself, immediately followed by the Daughter of
Zion’s pastoral reflection on God’s grace.

Brockes’s text imagery is drawn with a bold pen. Here, in an aria sung
by a Faithful Soul, you get both an example of the vivid nature of the language
and the characteristic dynamic of contrast:

His [Jesus’s] bloodstained back resembles Heaven
Adorned with countless rainbows,
Like signs of pure grace,
Which, where the guilty flood of our sins runs dry,
Shows us the radiant sun of his dear love
In the streams of his blood.

The vividness of Brockes’s language is well served by Telemann’s
colorful approach to the score. Obbligato instrumental lines for oboe, flutes,
recorders, and various strings are frequent, often dramatically symbolic, and
challenging. Moreover, the orchestra is also given special effects, such as the
haunting piercing of Jesus’s flesh in the sound of ponticello
string bowing. Certainly one of the more impressive aspects of the recording is
the brilliant playing of the orchestral players of Akademie f¸r Alte Musik
Berlin, with oboist Xenia Lˆffler offering particularly expressive
performances. For their part, the solo singers uniformly embrace dramatic
flexibility and fluency of idiom, and do so with compelling
expertise—qualities that remind, as well, of the distinctive singing
career of Jacobs himself.

Our deep attachment to Bach’s Passions may blind us to the broader
contexts in which these beloved works arose. Telemann’s setting of the
Brockes Passion is a masterful example of the riches that await our moving
beyond the seasonally familiar; Jacobs’s performance is a most gratifying
way to begin that journey.

Steven Plank

image_description=Georg Philipp Telemann: Brockes-Passion
product_title=Georg Philipp Telemann: Brockes-Passion
product_by=Birgitte Christensen, Lydia Teuscher, sopranos; Marie-Claude Chappuis, mezzosoprano; Don·t Hav·r, Daniel Behle, tenors; Johannes Weisser, baritone; RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie f¸r Alte Musik Berlin; RenÈ Jacobs, director.
product_id=Harmonia Mundi HMC 902013.14