Reinhard Keiser: Brockes-passion

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KEISER Brockes-Passion Peter van Heyghen, Lionel Meunier, cond; Les Muffatti; Vox Luminis RAMÉE 1303 (2 CDs: 120: 35 Text and Translation)

Barthold Heinrich Brockes was the son of a very wealthy Hamburg merchant and extremely active politically, financially, and culturally in his city. He was a member of the Hamburg senate, a campaigner for women’s educational rights, a translator, poet, sponsor of musical events, and librettist. In a Lutheran metropolis, Brockes fell towards the pietistic end of the scale; and the overwhelming impression left by his Passion text is of an intimate relation between Christ and the individual, conveyed in its first half largely through the very human, emotional reactions of Daughter Zion, and later for the most part through the Believing Soul.

His influence was such as to make this Passion something of a local favorite upon its appearance in 1712. As with his librettos, so with his religious text: It divides into recitatives, arias, and choruses, though the sheer wealth of content was meant to keep things moving, and prevent the work from displaying too many formalized, repetitive operatic elements. It’s a rare selection in the Brockes-Passion that lasts more than two minutes, and many run under a minute in length.

This is no impediment to displaying musical character in Keiser’s hands. He would have a considerable influence on Handel’s development, through his short, expressive, irregular melodic phrases and great instrumental detail. Here, Keiser goes for variety. He’ll launch a lengthy, complex orchestral introduction whose melody isn’t the one that’s subsequently sung (“Was Bärentazen, Löwenklauen”), and splinter the singing line over a galloping, gasping bass to signify Christ’s death (“Brich, brüllender Abgrund”). The tone is consistently lighter, early on—even during the deft, lightly contrapuntal entries where Jesus tells three of his disciples that his betrayer is near to hand (“So wachet doch”). Later pieces attain a greater emotional depth, though again, most of it is kept to a personal, rather than narrative (and dramatic) perspective. Keiser’s palette for diverse textures is broad: sparse chords to define the accompaniment of a bel canto melody (“Brich mein Herz”), an aria that becomes a duet with cello (“Die ihr Gottes Gnad versäumet”), a trio with recorder and violin (“Heil der Welt”), or one that launches with delicate, galant Italian rhythmic figures (“Lass doch diese herbe Schmertzen”). The text of Brockes is deliberately plain, but the music is an inspired mix of international elements.

On to the performers, and we’ll begin with the singers of Lionel Meunier’s Vox Luminis. I have nothing but praise for Zsuzsi Toth’s Daughter Zion. She’s a fine lyric with a bright top, well-equalized tone, and good agility. Sadly, much the opposite can be said of Hugo Oliveira, who sings two of the Believing Soul’s arias with approximate pitch and no agility. Soprano Caroline Weynants, whom I enjoyed in Falvetti’s Nabucco , is very fine in two others, though there’s a dry patch between her upper and mid-register. (The rest of the Believing Soul’s work is taken together by three singers performing largely as a chordal unit.) Jan van Elsacker has much recitative as The Evangelist, and delivers it stylishly, with a wealth of color and inflection. Fernando Guimarães huffs around the pitch as Peter, while Robert Buckland’s Judas speaks or shouts many notes—but displays good agility and tone when he remembers occasionally to sing. Peter Kooij’s Jesus is a deep bass that’s suavely deployed, while Sara Jäggi’s top notes as Mary become a vocalise that all too easily drifts off pitch. As I noted in two previous reviews, Les Muffatti, under Peter van Heyghen’s direction, combines precision with supple phrasing. It’s one of the best Baroque ensembles I’ve heard when it comes to finding a path between an anachronistic blend of all instruments, and one where every instrument stands off at rough angles from all the rest.

I’m less than thrilled with a number of the singers, but fortunately much of this work is given to the central role Toth assumes. That, plus Keiser’s fine work, and Ramée’s clear sound, make this Brockes-Passion compelling.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: RAM1303

  • UPC: 4250128513036

  • Label: Ramee

  • Composer: Reinhard Keiser

  • Conductor: Lionel Meunier, Peter Van Heyghen

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Les Muffatti, Vox Luminis