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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767): "Christmas Oratorios"

Kölner Akademie
Dir: Michael Alexander Willens

rec: June 4 - 6, 2018, Wuppertal, Immanuelskirche
CPO - 555 254-2 (© 2018) (76'53")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score TWV 1,1431

Herr Gott, dich loben wir (TWV 1,745); Im hellen Glanz der Glaubenssonnen (TWV 1,926); Schmecket und sehet (TWV 1,1251)a; Und das Wort ward Fleisch (TWV 1,1431)

Monika Mauch, Annike Stegger, soprano; Nicole Pieper, Sofia Gvirts, contralto; Georg Poplutz, Friedrich Custodio Speiser, tenor; Klaus Mertens, Raimonds Spogis, Manfred Buhla, Joel Urcha, bass
Almut Rux, Karin Stock, Ute Rothkirch, trumpet; Cordula Breuer, Gudrun Knop, piccolo; Frank Theuns, transverse flute; Tatjana Zimre, Alene Leslie, oboe; Christoph Robert, Antonio de Sarlo, Anna Neubert, Lorena Padron Ortiz, Katja Grüttner, Katarina Todorovic, violin; Rafael Roth, Bettina Ecken, viola; Klaus Dieter Brandt, cello; Ioannis Babaloukas, double bass; Willi Kronenberg, harpsichord, organ; Alexander Schubert, timpani

If we think of German baroque oratorios, Bach's Christmas Oratorio springs to mind, although it was not conceived as an oratorio, but rather as a cycle of cantatas. In Telemann's oeuvre we find only one such work: Die Hirten bei der Krippe zu Bethlehem, on a libretto by Karl Wilhelm Ramler. Telemann wrote several oratorios in the last ten years of his life, which were mostly intended for performances in the concert hall. As we usually expect German baroque oratorios to be works of considerable length, the recording of four oratorios on a single disc may come as a surprise. In New Grove we find this definition of an oratorio: "An extended musical setting of a sacred text made up of dramatic, narrative and contemplative elements." The word "extended" is open to discussion, considering that the shortest work here takes less than eighteen minutes. These four pieces appear on disc here for the first time, and according to the liner-notes they have been discovered only recently.

Despite the title of this disc, only three of the four works are called 'oratorio'; Und das Wort ward Fleisch is called Kirchenmusik and is in fact a 'conventional' cantata. The three other works have in common that the solo parts are allocated to allegorical characters, such as Joy, Hope, Love, Faith and Knowledge. Even the choir sometimes represents a group of people, such as the "faithfully observing souls" or "joyful souls". They are all part of a cycle of oratorios, which Telemann composed for the ecclesiastical year 1730/31. It was his plan to set texts by Albrecht Jacob Zell, who was born in Hamburg, and when he entered the service of the Count of Schaumburg-Lippe was given the opportunity to study theology in Halle an der Saale. His texts show the influence of Barthold Heinrich Brockes, who has become known as the author of a passion libretto - the Brockes-Passion, also set by Telemann - and the texts which Handel used for his German arias.

The three oratorios included here are intended for the first and third days of Christmas respectively as well as for New Year's Day. The programme opens with Schmecket und sehet for the first day of Christmas. Here the number of characters is such that Telemann needed additional singers. For his performances in the five main churches in Hamburg he had only eight singers at his disposal. For this cantata he needed four basses. The orchestral scoring is also larger than in the other works on this disc: two piccolos, two transverse flutes, two oboes, three trumpets, timpani, strings and basso continuo. The oratorio opens with a dictum, taken from Psalm 34 and sung by the Choir of joyful souls: "O taste and see that the Lord is good". Its structure is rather unusual. The chorus is followed by an aria for bass, taking the role of Joy, and the Choir of joyful souls. After a short recitative of Prayer (Andacht, alto), the choir sings another dictum, this time the famous text also included in Handel's Messiah: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder" (Isaiah 9, vs 6). It is followed by a recitative for eight different characters, an arioso for bass and choir, another recitative for eight voices and an accompagnato and aria for alto (Prayer). Next we hear again a recitative for the eight characters, who then sing an aria. The work closes with a chorale, 'Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein'.

The second oratorio is Im hellen Glanz der Glaubenssonnen, written for the third day of Christmas. The scoring is much more moderate than that of the previous oratorio: five solo voices (SATTB), strings and basso continuo. It opens with an aria of Knowledge (tenor), which is followed by a recitative of Reason (tenor), leading to a dictum, taken from Paul's letter to the Romans (ch 11, vs33). After a recitative and aria of Faith (bass) and a recitative of the Joyful child of God (alto), the Choir of thankful souls sings another dictum, again from Romans (ch 8, vs17). A recitative of Gratitude (soprano) leads to an aria of the Choir of thankful, observing and grateful souls. The oratorio closes with a chorale, again a stanza from a hymn by Paul Gerhardt.

The third oratorio, for New Year's Day, is Herr Gott, dich loben wir, scored for four voices, transverse flute, bassoon, strings and basso continuo. It opens with the first stanza of Martin Luther's German version of the Te Deum. It is followed by a recitative of Knowledge (bass), which opens with the words "The rapid run of excited times falls down one year again". Telemann does not let go the opportunity to depict this. Next follows an aria, which has the character of a dialogue between Knowledge and the Choir of observing soils: "Who whirls the fiery heat of the sun? - This is the Almighty's master work". Notable is the obbligato part for bassoon. The choir then sings a dictum: "The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands" (Psalm 19, vs1). Next follow a recitative and aria of Contemplation (tenor), and two recitatives embracing an aria of Holy longing (alto). The Choir of observing souls sings another dictum (Psalm 67, vs 8), which is followed by a recitative of Trust (soprano) and then the Choir of observing souls sings an aria, which closes the oratorio.

In comparison with these three oratorios, the structure of the last piece, Und das Wort ward Fleisch, a cantata (Kirchenmusik) for the third day of Christmas, is more conventional. The scoring is not: it is set for only three voices (SAB) and basso continuo. The text is from the pen of Erdmann Neumeister. The cantata opens with a Spruch, the German word for dictum. Here it is the well-known 14th verse from the first chapter of the gospel after St John: "And the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us". The choir then sings the fifth stanza from Luther's hymn Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ. A lengthy recitative for soprano follows, who then sings an aria. The choir sings the fourth stanza from the hymn In dulci jubilo and then the bass has the last aria, after which the opening section is repeated.

As one will have noticed, the pieces included on this disc are quite unusual, even in the oeuvre of Telemann, who was never afraid to leave the well-trodden paths. The discovery of these works is of major importance. It is to be hoped that more works from the oratorio cycle will appear on disc. I am happy to say that the performances are very good. The tutti are sung by eight voices: the four main soloists and four ripienists. The exception is the cantata: the scoring for three voices is an indication that the entire work was intended for soloists. All singers deliver outstanding performances, and that goes - not unexpectedly - especially for Klaus Mertens, who is still unbeatable in his treatment of this kind of repertoire. Thanks to the small line-up of the vocal ensemble and the perfect diction of the singers, the text is always intelligible. The playing is of the highest order.

This is certainly one of the most interesting Christmas discs that have been released in recent years.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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