George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759): Brockes-Passion. Performed by: Martin Klietmann (tenor, evangelist); István Gáti (baritone, Jesus); Mária Zádori (soprano, Daughter of Zion); Katalin Farkas, Éva Bártfai-Barta (sopranos); Éva Lax (contralto); Drew Minter, Péter Baján, Tamás Csányi (countertenors); Guy de Mey, János Bándi (tenors); Gunther Burzynski (baritone); Stadtsingechor Halle; Capella Savaria; dir. (from the harpsichord?) by Nicholas McGegan. Recorded in 1994 by Hungaroton on 3 CDs. Licensed re-release also available as part of the Handel Masterworks series from Brilliant Classics (99777-13/15). Total playing time: approx. 2 hrs 45 mins.
Handel's works are generally to Italian or English texts, and to find a German-language passion oratorio by him can be a surprise. In fact, he appears to have written it around 1716/1717 after spending an extended "vacation" in his German homeland. The libretto by the pious Hamburg poet Barthold Hinrich Brockes was very much "en vogue" at the time and was set to music by no less than four well-known composers: Keiser, Mattheson, Telemann and Handel himself. Typically for the Protestant German tradition of the time, it tells the story of the arrest, trial and death of Jesus Christ, but not strictly in the words of the Gospels; rather, the words of the Gospels are put into poetic form and complemented by pious comments allegedly coming from those involved in the story. In a sense, this was a musical "set piece", and although Handel obviously took a certain amount of trouble over the work, it is not to be expected that it should be particularly original. While listening to it, I heard parallels to other works by Handel, but also anticipations of Bach's passions - meaning not that Bach "copied" Handel, but rather that both were working within the framework of a common tradition. And of course, the libretto was not tailor-made for Handel's needs, so it is perhaps not surprising that some of the music sounds a little "forced". Nonetheless, there are any number of fine moments to be heard here, and those who love everything Handel wrote will enjoy themselves thoroughly.
The performance is good, with some highlights and some passages which are less brilliant. Martin Klietmann is a fine evangelist; he never reaches the heights of, say, Howard Crook in his role as the evangelist in Bach's passions (under the baton of Philippe Herreweghe), but his declamation is clear and his involvement plain without ever drifting into false emotionalism. Of the other singers, it is Drew Minter, and to a lesser extent Guy de Mey, who really stick out with clear and excellent enunciation and superbly controlled voices. The Hungarian singers involved in this production all have very nice-sounding voices, too, but in varying degrees they also all suffer from a more-or-less thick Hungarian accent, which not only makes following the text more difficult or, on occasion, impossible, but can also bring a smile to one's lips. (I should say that I have the Brilliant Classics edition which has no printed libretto; I speak German fluently and found it not too difficult to follow the action, but it was obvious that some of the soloists were having problems with the German text.) The Capella Savaria is, I believe, Hungary's oldest period-instrument orchestra and has often worked with Nicholas McGegan. Their playing is here inspired by his leadership, but it is, to my mind, still possible to hear that their instruments are not really up to the standard of equivalent Western orchestras (particularly in the strings). The harpsichord continuo, on the other hand, is exceptionally good. The Stadtsinge-Chor Halle is presumably a large amateur choir; its role in the oratorio is limited, but it seemed to be very well-disciplined.
The recorded sound is good without being special. I don't know whether this is legitimate, but I seemed to hear an improvement on the Brilliant Classics discs after transferring them carefully to hard disc and re-burning them on good-quality CD-R's.
2) Johannes-Passion. Performed by: Martin Klietmann (tenor, evangelist); József Moldvay (baritone, Jesus); Charles Brett (countertenor, Pilate); Mária Zádori and Ibolya Verebics (sopranos); Judith Németh (mezzosoprano); Gábor Kállay (tenor); Istvàn Gáti (baritone); Chamber Choir; Capella Savaria, dir. Pál Németh. Recorded in 1995 by Hungaroton and re-issued on Brilliant Classics as part of their Masterworks series. Total playing time: 60 minutes.
The biggest question hanging over this production is whether the St. John Passion which was first performed in the year 1704 in the city of Hamburg was, in fact, written by the 19-year-old up-and-coming Georg Friedrich Händel (that's the German spelling of his name) or not. In their somewhat clumsily-produced notes, Brilliant Classics argue for the piece's authenticity on the basis of criticism made by Johann Matheson, who, however, did not expressly name Handel as the composer. After listening to the whole work, I personally felt that, although the composer must have been a considerably gifted craftsman, I was probably NOT hearing music by Handel - this all sounds so thoroughly different to the music which he produced just a few years later in Italy; it is thoroughly North German sacred or church music: the text of chapter 19 of John's Gospel (in the Luther translation) plus a number of pious "Betrachtungen" (meditations) by the libretto author Christian Postel, who worked, in the main, for Keiser. We shall probably never know who really penned this work.
Having said that, it is still eminently worth listening to, both because it is the first known example of a passion oratorio in Germany (i. e. using orchestral forces as an accompaniment) and because the performance by the mainly Hungarian forces is rather well done. There are, as one might expect, a few difficulties with German enunciation here and there (particularly in pieces sung by Ibolya Verebics), but on the whole the text comes over clearly and quite comprehensibly, and it became obvious to me that Pál Németh had devoted a good deal of industry to getting this right. The small choir sounded even better than the large one on the Brockes Passion, and the instruments have some delightful moments - here too, the harpsichord continuo I found to be exceptionally good. In the end, I suppose the composition itself is not quite up to later Handelian standards (and certainly cannot be compared with Bach's St. John Passion), but it definitely provides an hour of both serious entertainment and entertaining devotion. Particular praise also goes here to Charles Brett and Martin Klietmann, whose declamation is wonderfully clear. Soprano Mária Zádori, too, is able to show off her beautiful timbre and her vocal agility to the best advantage.