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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767): "Johannis-Oratorium"

Elena Harsányi, Rahel Maas, soprano; Elvira Bill, contralto; Mirko Ludwig, tenor; André Morsch, baritone; Klaus Mertens, bass-baritone; Mauro Borgioni, bass
Kölner Akademie
Dir: Michael Alexander Willens

rec: Jan 13 - 16, 2020, Wuppertal, Immanuelskirche
CPO - 555 271-2 (© 2022) (78'47")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Bequemliches Leben, gemächlicher Stand (TWV 1,123); Gelobet sei der Herr (TWV 1,602/1216)

Rahel Maas, Bethany Seymour, Kerstin Dietl, soprano; Elvira Bill, Jennifer Reineke, Isabel Desiree Johanna Koch, contralto; Mirko Ludwig, Valentin Bauer, Niek van den Dool, tenor; Klaus Mertens, Mauro Borgioni, Konstantin Paganetti, bass
Flavia Hirte, Eva Morsbach, Manfredo Zimmermann, transverse flute; Martin Stadler, Mario Topper, oboe; Johannes Leuftink, Christopher Weddle, Anton Koch, Yoichi Murakami, horn; Antonio de Sarlo, Ye-Young Hwang, Katarina Todorovic, Anna Maria Smerd, Viliana Bobeva, Laura van der Goltz, violin; Rafael Roth, Carmen Maria Rodríguez Romero, viola; Amarilis Dueñas Castán, Julie Maas, cello; Jörg Lühring, double bass; Willi Kronenberg, Reinhard Siegert, harpsichord, organ; Alexander Schubert, Felix Noll, timpani

The oratorio was one of the main forms of sacred music in Germany in the first half of the 18th century. Such works were written for special occasions, such as Christmas or Passiontide. They were mostly substantially longer than the cantatas which were a fixed part of the liturgy on most Sundays and feast-days of the ecclesiastical year. It was part of the duties of Georg Philipp Telemann as Musikdirektor in Hamburg to compose the cantatas for performance in the five main churches throughout the year. His oeuvre includes several annual cycles of cantatas. The cycle of 1730/31 takes a special place in his oeuvre, in that it consists of oratorios rather than cantatas. They are not necessarily longer than cantatas but are somewhat different in character. In 2018 CPO released a disc with three oratorios for Christmastide. The shortest work on that disc takes less than eighteen minutes, which indicates that it is not the length that marks the difference between an oratorio and a cantata. 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." Considering this annual cycle the word "extended" should be taken with a grain of salt. What is the essence here are the three terms 'dramatic', 'narrative' and 'contemplative'. Those are the three main features of the longest work on the present disc, Gelobet sei der Herr, an oratorio for the feast of John the Baptist.

This feast was celebrated on 24 June. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote three cantatas for this feast. The Gospel of that day was, obviously, taken from the first chapter of the Gospel after St Luke, which tells about the birth of John the Baptist. However, this is completely ignored in the libretto of Telemann's oratorio, written by Albrecht Jacob Zell, who was born in Hamburg, and studied theology in Halle an der Saale. Zell also ignores the Epistle of the day, which was from the prophet Isaiah (ch 40), about a voice in the wilderness, proclaiming the coming of the Lord. Zell rather makes a comparison between the salvation of the people of Israel from Egypt, as told in the book of Exodus, and the salvation of the believers from their sins. The recitative by Divine Contemplation explains: "We were enslaved to the curse, to sin and to hell, God liberates us from them". John the Baptist is compared with Aaron: "[God] spoke through Aaron's mouth and announced to the beset people: Just as Jesus shall come upon the earth, he let John come before him, and we have received the news: the time of freedom has come". And like God destroyed the Egyptians who chased after the Israelites, Jesus "destroys the proud splendour of the enemy". The last recitative of the first part spells it out another time: just as salvation came to the people of Israel, so it came to the 'spiritual Israel'.

[I have to make a comment here on the English translation of the text of this recitative. The German libretto uses the term "geistliches Israel" - 'spiritual Israel'. The translation says "clergy of Israel", which entirely misses the point. The term 'spiritual Israel' is derived from several letters in the New Testament, in which the faithful are compared with the people of Israel in the Old Testament. In Martin Luther's thinking, the church had replaced the Jews of the Old Testament as the 'people of God'. In modern scholarship this is called 'replacement theology'.]

The text compares the "holy Red Sea" with "the Saviour's blood" - through it "the faithful army can get to the long-promised Canaan of Heaven". The water is compared with baptism - through the water "the old receives its enemy, death, and new life, strength and cleanliness is nigh". The last recitative sums up the message of the oratorio: "So then! Since we have been delivered, we also raise up our Saviour".

Let's turn to the three features that in New Grove are mentioned as typical of the oratorio. The narrative element is very clear: in broad outlines the oratorio tells the story of the exodus. Several choruses, some of them called here 'aria', represent the dramatic element, such as the one of Israelites and Egyptians, when the latter chase the former. Another one is the chorus of the Egyptians when they are to drown in the Red Sea. Each of the four voices successively breaks off before finishing its line. The contemplative element is represented by the arias. One of the characters is, as we have already noted, Divine Contemplation. Its first aria, following the recitative quoted above, opens thus: "As slaves we had to bear the yoke of sin, and Satan's whip struck us with mighty blows. Only Jesus has broken the heavy yoke (...)". This brings us to another feature of the oratorios in Telemann's annual cycle, which sets them apart from his usual cantatas: the recitatives and arias are allocated to characters. Some of them are biblical: God, Moses, Miriam, Pharao. Others are allegorical: Divine Contemplation (Gottselige Erwägung), Christian Prudence (Christliche Vorsicht), Trust (Das Vertrauen) and Faith (Glaube).

The dramatic features attest to Telemann's credentials as an opera composer. He also shows himself a master in the department of musical illustration. In the first part, Pharao explains that his resistance to the Jews' wanting to leave, has broken when he lost his first-born son. His recitative is followed by a chorus of the Egyptians, lamenting about the death of their first-borns, and Telemann makes use of chromaticism to illustrate their pain. He vividly depicts the Pharao's call to chase the Israelites: "Awake! Hunt down Israel! Go with six hundred chariots!" The scoring includes parts for horns, which connects this scene to the hunt. When Christian Prudence warns about amusement, which can bewitch people, the score includes three parts for transverse flutes. The second part - to be performed after the sermon - opens with a sinfonia with parts for horns again. It is followed by a chorus of the Israelites in the form of an accompagnato, expressing their fear for the Egyptian army. They accuse Moses of having led them out of Egypt. The closing lines are full of chromaticism and dissonances: "For the desert rewards our once foolish desire with want and death". Moses reacts: "Stay confident! Laugh, when the Pharao become angry". The words "laugh" and "angry" are eloquently illustrated. The calm is depicted by long notes, played piano.

As one may expect in a work for the liturgy, there are several hymns. One of them is a stanza from Jesu, meine Freude, sung when the people are chased by the Egyptian army and God assures them his assistance: "Under his shield I am free from the storms of all enemies" (Unter seinen Schirmen). The work closes with a hymn; in this recording it is followed by a repeat of the opening chorus.

As far as I know this is the first recording of this oratorio. I am very impressed by its quality, and it is remarkable that it is not better known. It is a masterpiece, an ideal combination of drama and text illustration. Telemann effectively uses musical figures, harmony and scoring to achieve an optimum effect and communicate the text and its meaning. The performance does full justice to its qualities and dramatic power. Klaus Mertens is the ideal Pharao; his declamatory interpretation of the recitatives is second to none. Rahel Maas and Elvira Bill are excellent in their respective solos, and Mirko Ludwig convinces in his aria as Moses. I am less impressed by Mauro Borgioni as Divine Contemplation. I have heard better things from him, and his German pronunciation is not entirely idiomatic. However, it does not really damage the performance and certainly does not withhold me from greatly appreciating this recording. In the choruses the soloists are joined by ripienists, as was the case in Telemann's time.

The second work has more similarity with a 'conventional' cantata, except that the recitatives and arias are again allocated to various characters. Bequemliches Leben, gemächlicher Stand is from the same cycle as the previous work. It is written for Sunday Misericordias Domini, the second Sunday after Easter. In this case Zell, who again wrote the libretto, does link up with the Gospel of the day, which is from John (ch 10, vs 12-16), where Jesus presents himself as the 'Good Shepherd'. He juxtaposes himself to 'hirelings' - those who pretend to care about the sheep, but flee when a wolf comes, as they express in the second chorus: "Go, go and flee! Who wants to give his own life for someone else's sheep?" The Good Shepherd does: "I am angry and sad to see, how faithlessly the flock can be left". He is ready to defend the flock, even if it costs him his own life. In the aria he states: "Dear flock! To protect you I gladly allow my blood to spill". In the last recitative by one of the characters, Consideration (Betrachtung), the identity of the Good Shepherd is revealed: "My David of Heaven Jesus Christ, I realize now that you are the Good Shepherd". In an aria of Prayer (Andacht), the listeners are urged to follow him: "He gently takes the shepherd's staff and leads you to the meadow". The oratorio ends with a dictum; the text is John 10, vs 27-28. The first two choruses by the hirelings have the traces of popular songs and are both in unison. The closing chorus is in two sections, dominated by counterpoint; the second is a fugue.

This oratorio is more modest in size and scoring, but it is another impressive testimony of Telemann's creativity in setting a text. The contrast between the Good Shepherd and the hirelings comes perfectly off. The performance is of the same level as that of the previous work. Mertens perfectly embodies the Good Shepherd and the hirelings' choruses receive an apt interpretation from the vocal ensemble. Rahel Maas is excellent in her aria of Prayer.

As one may understand, this disc is a very important and musically compelling addition to the Telemann discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Elvira Bill
Mauro Borgioni
Elena Harsányi
Mirko Ludwig
Rahel Maas
Klaus Mertens
André Morsch
Kölner Akademie

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