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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767): Johannes-Passion (St John Passion) 1733 (TWV 5,18)

Grit Wagner, soprano; Cornelia Diebschlag, Ulrike Mayer, mezzo-soprano; Thomas Fröb, Michael Zabanoff (Evangelist), tenor; Florian Götz, Matthias Vieweg (Jesus), bass
Kammerchor der Biederitzer Kantorei; Cammermusik Potsdam
Dir: Michael Scholl

rec: March 16, 2010 (live), Magdeburg, Kloster Unser Lieben Frauen
Amati - ami 2601/2 (2 CDs) (1.53'25")
Liner-notes: D; lyrics - no translations

Jana Semerádová, transverse flute; Marek Niewiedzial, oboe; Gerd Becker, bassoon; Wolfgang Hasleder, Szabolcs Illes, Adam Pastuszka, Sarah Flögel, Christoph Timpe, Helga Schmidtmayer, violin; Heinrich Kubitschek, Helge Scholz, viola; Kathrin Sutor, cello; Juliane Laake, violone; Sabine Erdmann, harpsichord, organ

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. During his time in office he composed 46 Passions, of which 22 have survived. Among them are eleven on the text of the gospel after St John; eight of these have come down to us. The St John Passion of 1733 is the earliest surviving setting.

It has some rather conservative traits. The majority of the chorales are from the 17th century, especially from hymns by Paul Gerhardt and Johann Heermann. These are mostly unchanged which means that their melodies have not been adapted to the fashion of the time, as is the case in later Passions by Telemann. In his Passions the arias are often given to either characters from the gospel, such as Peter, and sometimes even Jesus, or are put into the mouth of allegorical characters. Here these are Andacht (Devotion), Gläubiger Mut (Faithful Courage) and Die Frömmigkeit (Piety). The remarkable feature of this Passion is the inclusion of two characters which refer to the Song of Songs, the book from the Old Testament which tells about the love of a man and a woman. Since early times this book has been interpreted as an allegory, expressing the love between Jesus (bridegroom) and his people (bride). It is quite uncommon that this element - which is rooted in medieval mysticism - plays such an important role in a baroque Passion oratorio. Here the bride bears the name of Sulamith, the bridegroom is Der Seelenfreund (Friend of the Soul).

After the opening chorus the Evangelist tells how Jesus enters the garden of Gethsemane. Then follows the duet of Sulamith and the Seelenfreund: "Come, my friend, into your garden, come, my brother, sweet bridegroom - Yes, I come, my sister, dearest bride". The next duet may come as a shock to some listeners. The Evangelist tells that Jesus wears a crown of thorns and a purple robe. Pilate then says: "Behold, what a man!". Next follows the duet in which Sulamith and the Seelenfreund - representing Jesus - praise each other's beauty: "Behold, behold, you are beautiful, my friend". This reflects the ambiguity of the feelings of the faithful in regard to Jesus' Passion which can be considered the thread of this Passion. It is eloquently expressed at the end of the recitative of Devotion a little earlier, in regard to Jesus' wounds: "miserable gorgeous jewel, terrible joyful pain, which refreshes and wounds me with delight and fear".

The arias are reflections on the unfolding of the events. It is notable how well Telemann uses the orchestral part to illustrate the text. In the aria which follows Peter's betrayal, for instance, the orchestra graphically depicts the crowing of the cock with a repeated motif. In another aria the fear of the Faithful Courage is expressed with strong chords in the strings. In a third aria the blood dripping from Jesus' body is compared with the river Jordan in which Jesus baptizes himself in blood - a reference to his baptism by St John the Baptist. Here the dripping of the blood and the flowing of the water are illustrated in the instrumental parts.

Over the years I have heard various Passions by Telemann, and I rank this one among the best. Unfortunately the liner-notes are only in German and the lyrics are also not translated into English. That doesn't help in promoting Telemann's sacred music and especially his Passions outside Germany. However, that is what this setting fully deserves. I am also happy to tell that the performance is quite good, although there are some shortcomings. Michael Zabanoff gives an excellent account of the role of the Evangelist, in a truly narrative fashion; the tempo is spot-on. Matthias Vieweg's voice is not very powerful, but he sings the part of Jesus very well. It is unfortunate that the booklet doesn't inform us about the distribution of the various arias. There are three female singers but we are not told which of them sings which part. I suspect that the arias where the singer has some problems with the top notes are performed by one of the mezzo-sopranos. About half of the arias are for bass and these are sung by Florian Götz who does so very well. He also takes the other bass roles and the role of the Seelenfreund. That is a little surprising: as he is representing Jesus, it would have been more logical if Matthias Vieweg had taken this part. The tenor has just one aria to sing; Thomas Fröb has a nice voice, but should have kept his vibrato a little more in check.

It seems very likely that in Telemann's time the tutti parts were sung by solo voices rather than a choir. It is notable that the turbae have just two vocal parts: soprano/tenor and alto/bass. These are embraced by the violins playing the upper part, and the basso continuo. That also could be an indication of a very small number of singers. This scoring could be the reason they have not that much impact, in comparison with the turbae in Bach's Passions, for instance. However, I also think that the choir - as good as it is - doesn't fully explore the tutti parts. The chorales are too straightforward: there should have been more dynamic shading and the fermates are treated too stereotypically. The orchestral part is in the best of hands with the Cammermusik Potsdam.

Despite these flaws this is an impressive recording. It is the first time this particular Passion has been recorded, and that cannot be appreciated enough. This is a very important addition to the fast-growing Telemann discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Biederitzer Kantorei

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