Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Handel’s Brockes-Passion review – Spy Wednesday at St George’s, Hanover Square

27 March 2024

A performance from Harry Bicket and The English Concert as part of the London Handel Festival.


The English Concert (Photo: Tom Bowles)

German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes wrote Der für die Sünde der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus, more commonly known today as the Brockes-Passion, in 1712, and it went through 30 or so editions over the following 15 years. Many composers set it, including Reinhard Keiser (1712), Georg Philipp Telemann (1716), Johann Mattheson (1718), Johann Friedrich Fasch (1723) and Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1725). In fact, so popular was the text that the Easter fortnight of 1719 in Hamburg saw performances of four versions by Keiser, Telemann, Mattheson and Handel.

Handel most likely wrote his Brockes-Passion in 1716, utilising the librettist’s own preferred 1713 revision of his text, but its first performance may have been the one in Hamburg on 3 April 1719, when the composer himself was absent. While Brockes’ text and Handel’s version were extremely popular for a period, although far more so in Germany than England, both fell out of favour as they did not suit the tastes of later generations. 

Brockes wove reflective and descriptive poetry into the texture of his Passion, and alongside Jesus, the Evangelist and all of the ‘standard’ characters, the work features a Daughter of Zion, who sings substantially more than any other individual, and several Faithful Souls. The chorus as well constitutes the Chorus of Faithful Souls on some occasions, The Christian Church on others and the Chorus of Soldiers when required. 

The text often feels highly charged and fiery, which may explain why it eventually fell out of favour as it is hard to picture 19th century audiences being impressed by Peter in his remorse at having denied Christ proclaiming ‘my bowels screech on glowing coals’. By the same token, however, it could not have been a more perfect vehicle for Handel’s music as it enabled the composer to maximise on the power and theatricality that imbues so much of his output. As a result, the piece combines overtly dramatic moments with tenderly moving passages, leading us to feel as if we are going on the journey with Christ as much as in any Passion. Although there is an Evangelist, the vast majority of the story is told in the first person, with the Daughter of Zion and the Faithful Souls not only responding to events as the listener might do, but even trying to alter the course of them.  

Although the work lasts around three hours (with interval), it contains 105 items and so, excepting some arias that last several minutes, they are worked through at a pace that feels dramatic in its own right. ‘Erwäg, ergrimmte Natternbrut’, sung by one of the Faithful Souls, sounds like an operatic aria that was designed to show off the talents of the tenor as much as anything else. Similarly, there are several occasions when the pace and bluntness seem to demand the type of theatricality that Handel was so adept at providing, such as when the Chorus of Soldiers cry ‘Seize him! Strike him dead!’, or in the short exchanges between Jesus and John, James and Peter.

“The text often feels highly charged and fiery…”

At the other end of the spectrum, some of the music, and particularly several of the chorales, feel deeply devotional and rather more in the style of J. S. Bach’s St John and St Matthew Passions. For example, the Daughter of Zion’s ‘Gott selbst, der Brunnquell alles Guten’ features a series of melancholic three note motifs played by solo oboe as well as other instruments. Of course, the Brockes-Passion preceded both of Bach’s creations, and there are several ways in which it influenced the St John Passion, but even when Handel shows he is more than capable of being as ‘pious’ as Bach, he uses his own style to make that ‘piety’ feel unique. In fact, the Daughter of Zion’s ‘Die ihr Gottes Grad’ versäumt’ feels so heartfelt and moving that it goes beyond itself to appeal in a way that a poignant operatic aria might. Perhaps because of Handel’s grasp of drama, Jesus’ proclamation ‘If it is possible / that your anger can be assuaged, / then let this cup pass from me’ feels extremely real, rather than as if it merely represents a stage that he must inevitably go through in a Passion. Interestingly, the accompaniment to the aria that contains these lines feels vaguely reminiscent of Purcell’s ‘The Cold Song’. 

This performance by The English Concert, directed by Harry Bicket, featured 12 singers who, with the exception of Robert Murray as the Evangelist, performed from behind the orchestra. As the Brockes-Passion features a significant number of characters, the majority of them took on more than one role, while everyone came together to deliver the choruses and chorales. Murray sang from the pulpit and, with his warm, bright and secure tenor, did not come across as an authority figure lecturing us on how we should feel. Rather, he felt like a person who was so astonished himself by the incredible story he was relating that he just had to share the news. After the interval, however, his tone did become more sorrowful as Christ appeared before Pilot and then went to his death. 

As Jesus, Ashley Riches offered a deep yet nuanced sound that, when coupled with his sensitive approach to the lines, made for a profoundly moving performance. As the Daughter of Zion, Hilary Cronin’s well shaped soprano was possessed of a glistening quality, and just the right level of depth. She also demonstrated the flexibility that the part requires, so she could follow the extremely tender aria ‘Die Rosen krönen sonst der rauhen Dornen Spitzen’ with the fiery recitative ‘Verwegner Dorn, barbar’sche Spitzen!’. Nardus Williams gave a stirring performance as the soprano Faithful Soul, capturing the emotional starkness of the aria ‘Hier erstarrt mein Herz und Blut’ without ever indulging in histrionics. 

Jess Dandy brought her rich alto to the role of Judas, while, as Peter, Josh Lovell’s tenor stood out for its suppleness, clarity and ability to shape phrases. Morgan Pearse applied his striking baritone to the roles of Pilate and Caiphas, and, in terms of acting, offered the most committed performance of the evening. Finally, Lauren Lodge-Campbell’s soprano revealed such a beautiful combination of sensitivity and security as she sang Mary that her duet with Riches, when she asks why her son must die, made for a deeply moving occasion. 

• The 2024 London Handel Festival continues until 20 April. For details of all events and tickets visit its website.

buy Hilary Cronin MP3s or CDs
Spotify Hilary Cronin on Spotify

More on Hilary Cronin
Arianna in Creta review – La Nuova Musica and David Bates at St George’s, Hanover Square
Handel’s Brockes-Passion review – Spy Wednesday at St George’s, Hanover Square