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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767): Markus-Passion (St Mark Passion) 1755 (TWV 5,40)

Susanne Gorzny, Friederike Holzhausen, soprano; Michael Zabanoff, tenor; Sörn von Billerbeck, Matthias Vieweg, bass
Kammerchor der Biederitzer Kantorei; telemann consort magdeburg
Dir: Michael Scholl

rec: March 28, 2004 (live), Klosterkirche Groß Ammensleben
Amati – ami 2302/2 (2 CDs) (1.30'40")

When Telemann became Musikdirektor in Hamburg it was part of his duties to compose one Passion every year, alternating the Gospel accounts of the four evangelists in fixed yearly rotations. Telemann considered composing religious music as the most important part of his activities, as he wrote in his first autobiography of 1718: "This, however, I know well, that I always have valued church music most highly, I have studied other composer's music most because of it, and I also put most work into it". Telemann started in 1722 with a Passion to the Gospel of St Matthew. Until the end of his life he composed 46 Passions, about half of which have been lost. For a long time these works were getting little attention from performers, but since about 15 years several of them have been recorded, and they are also more regularly performed. The Biederitzer Kantorei has even established a new tradition of performing one of Telemann's Passions every year.

The St Mark Passion of 1755 is one of 12 on the text of this gospel which Telemann composed. But only four have come down to us. The story of the Passion in the gospel according to St Mark is not very frequently set to music, probably because the account of the Passion is rather short in comparison to the gospels of St Matthew and St John. For Telemann the concise character of the account of St Mark couldn't be a problem: in Hamburg the Passions had to be relatively short, and as a result they all start with the end of the Last Supper and end with the death of Jesus. The account of the religious leaders conspiring against Jesus and his burial, which are part of other Passions, are absent in Passions written for Hamburg.

The St Mark Passion has a distinct structure. It begins with a look ahead at the conclusion: the chorus sings a song of praise on the text of Psalm 92,1, then follows an aria of Jesus and the chorus which says that what the ancestors of the Old Testament were hoping for had arrived, and the chorus sings a chorale of thanksgiving. After that the account of the Passion is divided into 13 sections, consisting of the text of the Gospel (Evangelist and soliloquents – recitative; the people – chorus), followed by an aria and closed by a chorale.

The texts of the arias and the choice of chorales reflect the spirit of the Enlightenment. That is not surprising, as Hamburg was one of the centres of the German Enlightenment. When an episode of the story of Jesus's Passion has been told, an aria marks its meaning for the believer. For instance, the first section ends with the disciples swearing not to renounce Jesus, even if that means they had to die with him. Then the aria, sung by 'Die Treue' (Fidelity) says: don't be so quick to speak, be careful what your tongue says, because whatever you say will be brought to trial. And the following chorale is a prayer that I, when I have to speak, don't say useless things, but may speak justly. When it is told that Jesus is taken away to be crucified, 'Der Glaube' (Faith) sings: take me with you, let me help Jesus carrying his cross. And the chorale incites the heart to bear its own cross with Jesus.

Apart from 'Die Treue' and 'Der Glaube' the arias are sung by 'Die Andacht' (Piety) and by Jesus. And this is typical of the Passions of the time of the Enlightenment: Jesus is speaking words which are not from the Bible, but freely invented and put into his mouth. Sometimes that is a text which is not in line with Jesus's attitude as the Gospels testify. In the aria "O Frevler!" he shows anger and tells the people who hit him in the face that once they will face him in his capacity as judge and they will fear and tremble. But the Gospels report that Jesus asks his Father to forgive his persecutors as they don't know what they are doing. This just shows how dangerous it is to go beyond what the Gospels are documenting.

Here we see what the Enlightenment was looking for: the moral edification of the people. Whereas in older Passions – and also in those of Johann Sebastian Bach – the arias are addressed to God, here there is a third person, a kind of clergyman, addressing the people collectively or individually and urging them to do well to their neighbours. To that end texts from the Bible are used in a way which reflects what the theology describes as 'exemplary exegesis' – historical events and figures are directly used as examples for the believers. This kind of exegesis is superficial and doesn't do justice to the depth and true character of the Gospel, and runs the risk of reducing the Bible to a moralistic handbook.

Let's return to the music. It is quite something to write 46 Passions without ever repeating yourself. But from the Passions I have heard one has to conclude that Telemann's creativity was limitless. Of course that has everything to do with the fact that he closely followed what was fasionable in the musical style of his time, but even so the variety in his settings is very impressing. The arias are very well-written, with lots of variety in the scoring. Modern is Telemann in his use of contrasting affections in many arias, contrary to the baroque principle of a unity of affections. He isn't afraid of using some strong dissonants, like in the aria "Ist's möglich" (Die Andacht). Very impressive is the penultimate section: when a three hour darkness falls Jesus sings an aria accompanied by muted strings. This aria ends with the words: "Help, the words fade in my mouth", and appropriately the aria is without a dacapo. It is followed by a chorale: the – slightly changed – third stanza of Luther's hymn 'Mitten wir im Leben sind'. The last section, reporting Jesus's death, doesn't contain an aria. The text of the Gospel is followed by the closing chorale.

This is the second recording of a Passion by Telemann directed by Michael Scholl. In 1999 he recorded the St Matthew Passion of 1758 (Amati 9902/2). Both this and the preceding recording have their merits and their shortcomings. The strength of this recording are the arias: the orchestra is playing very well, and most soloists do a fine job. In particular the two sopranos are giving very good performances. Thomas Vieweg is pretty good in his arias, but much less convincing in the recitatives as he impersonates Peter, the High Priest and Pilate. And the recitatives in general are the main weakness of this performance: they are a bit too slow, and in particular too stiff rhythmically. It is a basic requirement of the performance of recitatives to follow the natural rhythm of the text rather than that of the music. The recitatives are rather spoken than sung. As a result there is a lack of tension, no matter how tense the events are. There is nothing wrong with Michael Zabanoff's voice, though: he has a pleasant voice and his diction is pretty good. The weak link in the cast of singers is Sören von Billerbeck, whose voice lacks power and whose interpretation lacks the authority the role of Jesus asks for.
I am not quite sure whether the chamber choir of the Biederitzer Kantorei is an amateur ensemble. If so, it is a pretty good one, but the sound lacks clarity. Although it consists of 20 singers its sound is a little massive and lacking clarity. And I am disappointed by the interpretation of the chorales, which is too much legato and lacks clear accents. Some words should be highlighted more.

I am surprised by the use of recorders in the aria "Sünder! Denkt an eure Sünden" (Die Andacht). They are not mentioned in the list of performers and to my knowledge Telemann doesn't ask for recorders in the score. Here he has probably written parts for transverse flutes. Not only does the reason for the use of recorders escape me, it is also questionable from a historical point of view as the recorder was well out of fashion in the time this Passion was written.

Having said all this I want to say that I am very thankful for the initiative to record this Passion. There is much to enjoy here, and one can only hope more of Telemann's Passions are going to be performed and recorded in the near future.

Johan van Veen (© 2007)

Relevant links:

Biederitzer Kantorei

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