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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767): "A Christmas Oratorio - Pasticcio"

Veronika Winter, soprano; Anne Bierwirth, contralto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; Matthias Vieweg, bass
Das Kleine Konzert
Dir: Hermann Max

rec: Dec 20, 2020 (live), Cologne, Trinitatiskirche
CPO - 555 605-2 (© 2023) (77'30")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

[in order of appearance] Siehe, ich verkündige euch große Freude (TWV 1,1333); Tönet die Freude, belebte Trompeten (TWV 1,1410); Darzu ist erschienen die Liebe Gottes (TWV 1,166); Wünschet Jerusalem Glück (TWV 1,1726); Ihr Völker, bringet her dem Herrn (TWV 1,919)

Leonhard Schelb, Mariya Miliutsina, transverse flute; Simon Böckenhoff, Roberto de Franceschi, oboe; Rebecca Mertens, bassoon; Gábor Hegyi, Daniel Ackermann, trumpet; Georg Köhler, Alexandre Zanetta, horn; Cosima Taubert, Andreas Preuss, Bettina von Dombois, Gabriele Nußberger, Marika Apro-Klos, Fiona Stevens, violin; Aino Hildebrandt, Gabrielle Kancachian, viola; Ulrike Schaar, cello; Kit Scotney, double bass; Johannes Liedbergius, organ; Christoph Nünchert, timpani

In the course of history several composers have written a 'Christmas Oratorio', although not each piece of that kind bears that title. Johann Sebastian Bach is one of them, but his Christmas Oratorio is, strictly speaking, not an oratorio, but a cycle of cantatas. This inspired Hermann Max to put together a Christmas Oratorio from cantatas by his contemporary Georg Philipp Telemann. It is called a pasticcio, but that is, again strictly speaking, not correct. We know pasticcios especially from the world of opera. George Frideric Handel, for instance, performed several pasticcios, which were a sequence of arias and recitatives taken from operas by various composers. The result is one 'new' work, which is a unity, as it was mostly based on one specific libretto. The cantatas which are part of this 'Christmas Oratorio', are not connected by a narrative, the story of Jesus's birth and first weeks, as we find it in the Gospels of the New Testament. That is a marked difference with Bach's Christmas Oratorio, as in all six cantatas the tenor acts as Evangelist. Another difference is that these five cantatas by Telemann are from different stages in his career. Three date from his years in Frankfurt, the other two from the 1750s, when he was Musikdirektor in Hamburg.

Siehe, ich verkündige euch große Freude is a cantata for the first day of Christmas, and dates from 1755, when it was performed in St Peter's Church. The author of the libretto is not known. The scoring is for four voices and an orchestra of transverse flute, oboe, two trumpets, timpani, strings and basso continuo. The trumpets and timpani manifest themselves right at the start, in an aria for soprano, who steps into the shoes of the angel, announcing Jesus's birth to the shepherds (although, as in nearly each cantata, the vocal parts are not allocated to a character). The ensuing aria for bass is addressed to the shepherds: "You shepherds, do not think that the Lord has been born for you alone; all of us have a part in our Saviour." In this aria we find a reference to Adam's fall, which made necessary Jesus's coming to the world. A chorale follows, and then the alto explains the purpose of Jesus's incarnation: "For poor and lost sinners, for those gone astray, for wayward children, God becomes a man." Another chorale follows, and then the tenor addresses Jesus, called Immanuel: How does he arrive? "With thunder and lightning ready to serve your might? Oh no! In lowliness, with whining and moaning, with parched thirsting for our salvation." This contrast is effectively illustrated. The cantata closes with a chorus and a chorale.

For the second day of Christmas Telemann composed Tönet die Freude, belebte Trompeten, which was performed at St Nicholas's in Hamburg in 1757; the author of the libretto is not known. Given the title it is not suprising that the orchestra includes two parts for trumpets, alongside timpani, strings and basso continuo. Again, they make their appearance in the very first section, an aria for bass: "Intone the joy, ecstatic trumpets, and you drums increase the festive sound!" The text also refers to strings and flutes, and again Telemann shows his mastery in illustrating a text. The vocal part also includes imitative figures, and Matthias Vieweg conveys them perfectly. Next follows a chorale, 'Zwingt die Saiten in Cithara', the sixth stanza of the hymn Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern. This cantata is the only one where the vocal parts are sometimes connected to a role. In the first recitative the tenor represents Devotion (Die Andacht) - which is in fact the archangel Gabriel - and the bass the Voice of God (Stimme Gottes). The angel sings: "I rise on your wing of grace, God of Hosts, far over this world (...)". The Voice of God says: "I shall show my salvation to the Earth: He who redeems it becomes man to establish its salvation." After a chorus and chorale, the alto represents a shepherd in a recitative, in which he is startled by the appearance of an angel. His fear is then expressed by a chorus of shepherds: "We tremble, God of Jacob! We bend our trembling knees", again graphically illustrated in the music. The angel (soprano) calms them down, and the bass, representing another shepherd, expresses his happiness about his message. The tenor, again in the role of Devotion, sings an aria in which he reacts to the news of Jesus's birth. A chorale, recitative for alto and another chorale close the cantata.

Darzu ist erschienen die Liebe Gottes dates from 1720 and was written for the third day of Christmas. The author of the libretto is Gottfried Simonis, some of whose texts Telemann had set for his annual cycle 1716/17; the cycle of 1720/21 consisted entirely of settings of librettos by Simonis. (The title is confusing: in New Grove and in the list of Telemann's works at the site Musique et Musiciens it is given as Daran ist erschienen die Liebe Gottes, with darzu as alternative; I have not found any explanation). As in New Grove this cantata is marked as being lost, the scoring is not given. The oboes play a major role in this cantata. It opens with an aria for soprano with chorus on the text of the first letter of St John (ch 4, vs9): "The love of God has appeared to us in that God has sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we should live through him." After a recitative for bass, the tenor sings an aria which praises God for his "love and loyalty". A recitative for alto and a duet for soprano and bass follow; in the latter the liberation from "chains and fetters" is hailed. The whole cantata is a song of praise, as the last two sections emphasize, first a recitative for tenor (Yes, yes, praised be the name of the Most High) and then a chorale (May praise, honor, and thanks be said to you).

New Year's Day was also the feast of the circumcision of the Lord, but in Telemann's cantata Wünschet Jerusalem Glück this is entirely ignored. The cantata dates from 1717 and the libretto's author is Erdmann Neumeister, one of the main librettists of his time, whose texts Bach also used. The scoring is for two oboes, two horns, strings and basso continuo. The horns make themselves heard in the opening chorus: "Wish happiness to Jerusalem. Things must go well for those who love you. Peace there must be within your walls and happiness in your palaces." It is a dictum - a litteral quotation from the Bible, in this case a verse from Psalm 122. It is a jubilant piece, but includes a short restrained episode on the words about peace, undoubtedly a reminder of what precedes it. The ensuing tenor recitative sets the tone: "The new year grants us its first glances; we wish each other a thousand moments of happiness, that God may have the gate of blessing open and embrace our body and soul with his protection." Two lines are set to music taken from the hymn Herr Gott, dich loben wir, Luther's paraphrase of the Te Deum. In the following duet of alto and bass, the wishes for a happy new year are addressed to "our dear city" - in this case Frankfurt. The soprano recitative says that well-being is dependent on just one word: Jesus. The tenor then sings an aria: "In Jesus’s name the beginning must be happy." A chorale closes the cantata.

Whereas Bach in his Christmas Oratorio included a cantata for the Sunday after New Year's Day, Hermann Max omitted a cantata for that day. The fifth and last cantata of this 'pasticcio' is for Epiphany. Ihr Völker, bringet her dem Herrn Ehr und Macht dates from 1719; the text is again from the pen of Neumeister. The scoring is for two oboes, strings and basso continuo. The Gospel of the day is from Matthew (ch 2), where the story of the Magi is told. The libretto does not explicitly refer to it, but it includes reminiscences of it, in that it focuses on offering God what he deserves, as expressed in the bass arioso: "Offer thanks to God and pay your vows to the Most High." It is followed by a recitative that Max has taken from another cantata for Epiphany. It is for tenor, and so is the following aria: "I offer, Jesus, my heart to you in thanks for your loyalty." The cantata closes with the stanzas 5 and 6 from the hymn Wach auf, mein Herz, und singe (Paul Gerhardt, 1647).

Hermann Max is not a representative of the 'one voice per part' school. He always performs German sacred music with the participation of his choir, the Rheinische Kantorei. However, here the five cantatas are performed by four singers, who also take care of the tutti sections. The reason is that this is a live recording without an audience, made during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first three cantatas were the contribution of WDR Cologne to the annual EBU Christmas Day; the other two cantatas were broadcast by the channel in Germany. The result is pretty much ideal; in the tutti I did not really miss the choir. Max always pays utmost attention to the intelligibility of the text, but with four singers that is easier to achieve. All four singers are experts in this field. Veronika Winter has sung numerous times in recordings by Max, and it is easy to understand why he is so fond of her voice. The clarity, the treatment of the text, pronunciation, diction, dynamic accents - her performances have everything that is needed in this repertoire. Anne Bierwirth has only recitatives to sing, apart from a duet with the bass, but she does so very well; I really like her voice, which is that of a true alto. Georg Poplutz is one of the best of his kind, and has the same qualities I just mentioned with regard to Veronika Winter. He is a very sensitive performer who explores the content of each piece to the full. Power is not a feature of Matthias Vieweg's voice; subtility and expression are, and that is what is needed here. However, as I indicated, in the opening aria of Tönet die Freude, belebte Trompeten he produces the power the text requires. Das Kleine Konzert is excellent as always, and the obbligato parts are very well executed by its members.

This 'oratorio' is very different from Bach's Christmas Oratorio, but in its very own way a major contribution to the discography of music for Chrismastide.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Georg Poplutz
Matthias Vieweg
Das Kleine Konzert

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