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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767): "Cantatas for Bass"

Klaus Mertens, bassa
Liesbeth Hermans, sopranob; Marleen Schampaert, contraltoc; João Sebastião, tenord; Il Gardellinoe
rec: November 2005, Haarlem (Neth), Doopsgezinde Kerk
Accent - ACC 24167 (© 2006) (69'01")

Die Liebe gegen meinen Gott, cantata for the 13th Sunday after Trinity (TWV 1,350)abcde; Es sind schon die letzten Zeiten, cantata for the 25th Sunday after Trinity (TWV 1,529)abcde; In allen meinen Taten, cantata for the 5th Sunday after Trinity (TWV 1,928)abcde; Trio for transverse flute, oboe and bc in d minor (TWV 42,d4)e [1]; Trio for oboe, violin and bc in g minor (TWV 42,g5)e [1]; Wo soll ich fliehen hin, cantata for the 22th Sunday after Trinity (TWV 1,1724)abcde

Sources: [1] Essercizii Musici, 1739/40

Jan De Winne, transverse flute; Marcel Ponseele, Ann Vanlancker, oboe; Mira Glodeanu, Mika Akiha, violin; Deirdre Dowling, viola; René Schiffer, cello; Alain Derijckere, bassoon; Frank Coppieters, double bass; François Ryelandt, harpsichord; Shalev Ad El, harpsichord, organ

In the 18th century almost every composer was also a performer, and many performers were also composers. It is generally known that Georg Philipp Telemann was able to play a large number of instruments, like the keyboard, the violin, the viola da gamba, the recorder and even the bass-trombone. Far less known is that he also was active as a singer. In his birthtown Magdeburg he studied at the Aldtstätisches Gymnasium and at the Domschule. He took singing lessons from the Domschule's Kantor, Benedikt Christiani. Later on, after he had entered Leipzig University to study law, he founded the Collegium Musicum, and in 1702 he was appointed musical director of the Opernhaus auf dem Brühl. Here he appeared on the stage as a singer himself more than once.

In 1712 he was appointed city musical director and Kapellmeister at the Barfüsserkirche in Frankfurt. In his letter of application he mentioned his ability to sing as a baritone. In 1717 he requested an increase of his salary from the city council which he wanted to use to attract additional musicians. He mentioned that because of a shortage of musicians he was forced to sing and play several instruments during service: "As [the city council] knows that during the church music there is a serious lack of singers, I have to tire myself constantly …". The fact that Telemann's output contains a remarkable number of cantatas for bass suggests a number of them were written for his own use. Apart from those cantatas which were part of several collections Telemann published at several moments during his career there are 54 cantatas for bass, 30 of which are preserved in the library of the Brussels Conservatory. This 'Brussels cycle' were part of the estate of Johann Jacob Westphals (1756-1825), which were purchased by the Belgian organist François-Joseph Fétis (1784-1871), who was the first director of the conservatory In Brussels. (He was an avid collector of early music, and the Brussels conservatory owns also a famous collection of lute music which he put together.) It is assumed these cantatas were composed in the early 1750's when Telemann was music director in Hamburg.

Cantatas were usually written to support the sermon, and therefore based upon those passages of the Bible which were prescribed for a particular Sunday. In this respect there is no difference between these cantatas and those Bach wrote for the services in Leipzig. It is not known who wrote the texts, but it is quite possible that they were written by Telemann himself, whose great interest in poetry is well documented.

All four cantatas begin and end with a four-part chorale setting. In between are two recitatives and two arias, mostly in that order. Only in Es sind schon die letzten Zeiten that order is reversed. In his excellent programme notes – very well translated in German by Barbara Burghardt – Eric F. Fiedler explains how the content of the arias are translated into music by Telemann. He shows how well Telemann was rooted in the German tradition of rhetorics and Affekt, and how effectively he uses their tools to depict what the text aimed to express. The use of major or minor keys as well as the register of the instruments are part of the package Telemann makes use of.

The disc opens with the cantata that was already mentioned, Es sind schon die letzten Zeiten, which contains two strongly contrasting arias. The cantata was written for the 25th Sunday after Trinity, which precedes the Advent period, and concentrates on the Second Coming of Christ (Matthew 24). In the first aria those who are sleeping in a state of sin and "in the slumber of death" are urged to wake up: "Do you feel so secure that you never think about eternity?" The sleeping of men is depicted by the pizzicato of the strings, but then the atmosphere of peace and quiet is rudely disrupted on the words "erwacht, erbebt, erschreckt" (wake up, tremble, be afraid). The second aria expresses the horrors which go along with the Last Judgement: "Lightning and thunder will make a terrible end to the god-forsaken world". "Rapid ascending scales and thundering tone repetitions in the lower register as well as bariolage-figures in the strings are the most obvious of Telemann's techniques for depicting such a show of meteorological fireworks", Eric Fiedler writes.

The second cantata, Die Liebe gegen meinen Gott, concentrates on the love for God and for one's neighbour, with reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). In the first aria the softly swaying siciliano rhythm is very appropriate to express the meaning of the text which speaks about the love for one's neighbour as evidence of one's love towards God. The second aria is about the believer cutting ties with this world and hastening towards God. This idea is expressed by ascending figures, and a long melisma on "eile" (hasten).

In allen meinen Taten links up with the story of the miraculous fish catch on the lake of Gennesaret (Luke 5). One of Jesus' disciples, Simon Peter, believes he only caught so many fish because he trusted in the Lord. This thought is reflected in the first aria which states that without God's blessing man's work will bring him nothing. The second aria prays that our work will be useful under Jesus' blessings. The message of this cantata is summarised in the opening chorale: "In all my deeds I follow God's counsel". Telemann makes a contrast by writing them in major and minor respectively. The repeated figures in the instruments in the second aria could refer to human labour and in particular its endless repetition.

The last cantata, Wo soll ich fliehen hin, deals with human frailty and weakness. It is about the parable of the wicked servant (Matthew 18). In the first aria the ascending figures eloquently express the content: "Have faith, my heart, in divine grace, the eternal love forgives the debt". In the second aria the believer prays for being able to forgive his neighbour as Jesus forgives him. The frequently uses Seufzer-figures in this aria underline the awareness of human inability to do what Jesus asks from him.

These cantatas are of excellent quality and show that Telemann was a master in the expression of religious texts, no less than Johann Sebastian Bach. Klaus Mertens and Il Gardellino give splendid performances which reveal the qualities of these compositions to the full. The only criticism could be the performance of the recitatives, which could have been realised with more rhythmic freedom. The chorales are rightly performed with one voice per part, and I am very pleased by the way they are sung. This is how chorales in German sacred music should be sung: well-articulated and with strong accents, expressing the text.

Considering the quality of these cantatas and the fact they have never been recorded I don't quite understand why just four of them have been recorded here, and the remaining pace has been filled with two trio sonatas from Essercizii Musici, which are frequently played and recorded. I also think the combination is a little arbitrary. But these performances are among the best I am aware of. There is no shortage of Affekt in the affetuoso of the Trio in d minor, and the dialogue of transverse flute and oboe is full of tension. The last movement, presto, is played with strong dynamic contrasts. And in the first movement of the Trio in g minor, mesto, the Seufzer are well emphasised. In both Trios the basso continuo section gives brilliant support, pushing the treble instruments forward, and delivering strong dynamic accents.

This disc is one of the best I have heard for some time. This is a happy combination of fine music, splendid performances, good recording technique and informative programme notes.

Johan van Veen (© 2007)

Relevant links:

Il Gardellino

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