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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767): Seliges Erwägen des bittern Leydens und Sterbens Jesu Christi (TWV 5,2)

Anna Lucia Richter (Der Glaube, Die Andacht), Hanna Zumsande (ripieno), soprano; Julienne Mbodjé (ripieno), contralto; Colin Balzer (Die Andacht), Michael Feyfar (Petrus), tenor; Peter Harvey (Jesus), Henk Neven (Caiphas), baritone
Freiburger Barockorchester
Dir: Gottfried von der Goltz

rec: Dec 1, 2017 (live), Hamburg, Laeiszhalle
Aparté - AP175 (2 CDs) (© 2018) (1.52'30")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

In the course of history the story of the passion and death of Christ have been set to music many times across Europe. These accounts usually follow the narrative in the Gospels. In the early 18th century a new genre came into being: a paraphrase of that narrative, often in combination with reflections on the events of Good Friday. Not seldom these were of a rather moralistic nature, urging the audience to follow the example of Christ in their daily lives.

In his Passions Johann Sebastian Bach confined himself to the traditional approach. Unlike Georg Philipp Telemann, he never set the famous Brockes-Passion, by far the best-known early specimen of such a Passion oratorio, as it is generally called. In Telemann's oeuvre both genres are represented. 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. These were intended for liturgical use, whereas his Brockes Passion was performed outside church, in the form of a public concert. The oratorio which is the subject of the present recording, is of a comparable type, and was also intended for extra-liturgical use. Although little is known about this work, it seems to be a rather early composition, originally written in 1719, when Telemann was working in Frankfurt, and reworked and completed three years later. Its first performance in Hamburg took place in 1722, on Monday of Holy Week. It must have found a good reception, as it was performed many times in the following decades.

The libretto seems to be from Telemann's own pen. The title of the oratorio tells exactly what it is about (in English): Passion Oratorio, or Blessed Contemplations on the bitter sufferings and the death of Jesus Christ, to incite to prayer, in various meditations drawn from the story of the Passion. It is divided into nine meditations (Betrachtungen), which consist of arias, recitatives (mostly accompanied) and chorales. The basic structure is the same in every meditation: it opens with a recitative or accompagnato, which is followed by arias and recitatives, and the meditation closes with a simple four-part harmonization of a hymn.

Here and there Telemann derives from this structure. The first meditation, following an instrumental sinfonia, opens with a chorale, and after two pairs of recitativo ed arioso and aria, another chorale is sung. This is followed by a further recitative and aria. The fourth and ninth meditations open with an aria. In most Passion oratorios the recitatives and arias are allocated to either characters whom we know from the Gospels (such as the disciples) or to various allegorical figures. The main characters in the present oratorio are Jesus and an allegorical character, called Die Andacht (Devotion); this role is divided among soprano and tenor. A few recitatives and arias are allocated to minor characters: Peter, Caiphas - both from the Gospels - and two further allegorical characters: Der Glaube (Faith) and Zion (the (Daughter of) Zion).

Every meditation is devoted to a particular scene from the Passion story. The first meditation is called Vom Abendmahle (Supper), which opens with the first stanza of a hymn which is especially connected to Supper: Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele. In this meditation Jesus instructs his disciples to celebrate communion: "Take, eat, this is my body. (...) Moreover, I will give you my true blood to drink. Drink of it, all of you". Jesus sings an aria, dominated by descending figures. The aria of Devotion is lively and has a rather uplifting character: "Should I forget you? No, dearest Jesus, oh no." A chorale is followed by a recitative of Devotion, and then he sings the second section of his aria I just mentioned. It would have been more convenient if this part of his aria would have been printed separately in the booklet.

The second meditation is about Peter and Jesus; the former insists that he will never deny Jesus, which he vehemently expresses in an aria, with marked accents in the orchestral part. When Jesus tells him: "The cock will not crow tonight before I see you deny me thrice", Peter repeats his words. Here the moralistic tenor of this work comes to the fore, when Devotion says in a recitative: "Oh, Peter! Do not rely too much on your strength", and then addresses the audience: "Remember, poor earth, remember that you are dust and ash". In the orchestra the strings are joined by the bassoon, which has an obbligato part. In the A section it either plays colla voce or imitates the singer, whereas in the B section it follows an independent route.

The third meditation brings us into the Garden of Olives, where Jesus is praying and sweating blood. In an arioso and recitative he expresses his fear; Devotion reacts: "Oh, sight that breaks my heart!", and then reflects on the scene with an aria. The accompaniment includes two obbligato violin parts.

In the fourth meditation Jesus is before Caiphas, where he is accused and spat upon. The meditation opens with an aria in which Caiphas boasts: "We are the gods of this world and our judgment is not to be contradicted". He then asks Jesus, whether he is the Son of God. Jesus confirms it and then sings a dramatic aria: "When judgment trumpets sound, and the last thunder roars, you shall see the Son of Man". The trumpets are symbolised here by a pair of horns. Devotion reacts with an aria, and then turns to the audience in a recitative: "Think, O soul! So that you be not plagued by punches in Satan's lair". This section closes with the well-known chorale Du edles Angesichte, the second stanza of O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.

The fifth meditation is called 'Peter's repentence'. It opens with a recitative by Peter, crying "Ah, ah! What have I done? (...) What have I committed, monster that I am?" In the ensuing aria he looks for help, but can't find any. In the next recitative he concludes: "I am lost forever because I forswore and denied God". Then Faith intervenes with an aria, addressing the audience with a message of comfort: "The tears shown by faith touch God's soul and heart". The contrast between the two arias is reflected in the instrumental scoring: Peter is accompanied by strings and two bassoons, whereas Faith is supported by two recorders and strings. The meditation ends with the first stanza of the hymn Straf mich nicht in deinem Zorn.

The sixth meditation is about 'Jesus bleeding'. It comprises two pairs of recitativo ed arioso and aria, all for Devotion. In the first he refers to the people's crying "His blood be on us and on our children". In the orchestra Telemann includes two horns to strong effect. "What you have taken upon you as a malediction, will come to me as a blessing". In the aria the central phrase, sung several times, is "ah, may your righteous blood, Jesus, free me!" In the next pair Devotion more specifically reflects on Jesus' bleeding: "I find on your bleeding back, O Jesus, my letter of quittance". In the recitative the orchestra includes two transverse flutes. The meditation ends with the chorale O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.

'Jesus crucified' is the title of the seventh meditation. It opens with a recitative and an aria of Jesus, announcing that he will die soon, and his suffering is coming to an end. But in his aria he vows: "I will fight, I will struggle, until hell is vanquished". It is a highly dramatic aria, which shows the influence of opera, not only in the vocal part, but also in the strong gestures in the orchestra. Next are a recitative and aria of Devotion: "Jesus is nailed to this wood, He who is the tree of life". The meditation closes with the 16th stanza of the hymn Jesu Leiden, Pein und Tod (Paul Stockmann, 1633).

'Jesus dying' is the subject of the eighth meditation. It opens with Jesus' singing an arioso: "It is finished!" It is followed by the second stanza of the hynm O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid: "O great distress! God himself lies dead!" Next Sion sings a recitative and an aria: "You, murderers of God, will you still not grieve over Jesus' death?" This section ends with the hymn Nun gibt mein Jesus gute Nacht: "My Jesus now bids a good night, his passion is now finished".

The ninth meditation is entitled "Jesus laid in the grave". Devotion first sings an aria about the effect of Jesus' Passion and death: "Jesus, dying, spreads out the wings of grace unto the sinners". The ensuing recitative shows strong similarity with the closing chorus of Bach's St John Passion: "My Jesus, good night! Sleep well after anduring all this misery. May my heart henceforth be your resting place, wherein I want to lay you and think of your death until mine".

This oratorio has received little attention. As far as I know it has only once been recorded before: in 1989 Wolfgang Schäfer recorded it for the German label Amati; it was later reissued by Brilliant Classics. It is a pretty good recording, but I prefer this new performance with the Freiburger Barockorchester under the direction of Gottfried von der Goltz. The playing of this top-class orchestra is hard to surpass. They effectively explore the dramatic nature of this work. The singing is also mostly very good. Peter Harvey gives a very convincing account of the role of Jesus, especially in the dramatic arias, such as 'Ich will kämpfen' (Meditation VII). In the more introverted arias he uses a bit too much vibrato. Anna Lucia Richter and Colin Balzer share the part of Devotion; both deliver very fine performances. The role of Peter is well interpreted by Michael Feyfar. Henk Neven is slightly disappointing in the role of Caiphas; I would have preferred a stronger voice. In the tutti the soloists are joined by four ripienists; this seems in line with the performance practice in many towns in Germany at the time. However, considering that this work was performed in Hamburg in a public concert, a small chamber choir would be a legitimate option. The voices in these episodes blend perfectly.

This work is well worth being regularly performed, as an alternative to the various settings of the Brockes-Passion, including Telemann's own. It is to be hoped that this new recording will raise the interest in this fine oratorio.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Peter Harvey
Henk Neven
Anna Lucia Richter
Freiburger Barockorchester

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