musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767): "Ich will den Kreuzweg gerne gehen - Passion Cantatas"

Klaus Mertens, bass-baritone
Accademia Daniel
Dir: Shalev Ad-El

rec: March 17, 2006, Leipzig-Gundorf, Ev.-Luth. Kirchea; June 7 - 9, 2007, Polditz, Ev.-Luth. Kirche
CPO - 777 299-2 (© 2009) (69'53")

Ach Herr! Lehr uns Bedenken wohl (TWV 1,24); Der am Ölberg zagende Jesus (TWV 1,364)a; Ich will den Kreuzweg gerne gehen (TWV 1,884); Jesus liegt in letzten Zügen (TWV 1,983); Was gibst du denn, o meine Seele (TWV 1,1510)

Benni Aghassi, recorder, bassoon; Tami Krausz, transverse flute; Ofer Frenkel, Xenia Löffler, oboe; Walter Reiter, Lilia Slavnya, Daphna Ravid, violin; Shlomit Sivan, Amos Boassona; Thomas Fritzsch, cello; Claus-Peter Nebelung, double bass; Shalev Ad-El, harpsichord, organ

The title of this disc, 'Passion Cantatas', should not be interpreted as cantatas written for Passiontide. All cantatas recorded here are in one way or another referring to the Passion of Christ, which was the core of Martin Luther's 'theology of the cross'. Just like in the sacred music by Bach it returns time and again in the oeuvre of his contemporaries, including Telemann. And so three of the five cantatas on this disc are written for the period from September to November, for the 16th, 21st and 23rd Sundays after Trinity.

All cantatas are scored for bass solo, with instruments and bc. We know from Telemann's own letter of application for the post of Kapellmeister in Frankfurt that he was a baritone, and five years after his appointment he complains that he has to sing quite often himself because of a lack of singers. This could explain the relatively large number of cantatas for bass. There are 54 of such works; this does not include cantatas which were written to be published, like those of the collection Harmonischer Gottesdienst.

The library of the Brussels Conservatory contains 30 cantatas for bass. In 2005 Klaus Mertens recorded four of them with the Belgian ensemble Il Gardellino. Here are five other cantatas, the last of which (Ach Herr! Lehr uns bedenken) is also from the Brussels collection. All cantatas consist of a sequence of recitatives and arias; two begin and end with a chorale setting.

Der am Ölberg zagende Jesus is a real Passion cantata, written in 1741. It begins with a recitativo accompagnato which describes the horrible scene of Jesus entering the garden of Gethsemane. This is reminiscent of the Passion-Oratorios of that time, like the Brockes-Passion. That is also the case in the next aria in which Jesus himself is speaking: "Ich bin betrübt bis in den Tod" (I am sorrowful unto death). This is depicted by suspiratio figures in the strings. In the next recitative it is the bystander again who is speaking, describing how Jesus turns his eyes to heaven and asks - and here the next aria begins: "My Father! If you will it so, then let this cup pass me by." In the last two lines he expresses his submission to the will of his Father: "Your will alone shall be done". Here the accompaniment is reduced to basso continuo alone, with the strings playing a short ritornello to end the aria. After another short recitative the closing aria contains a moral conclusion: "Come here, you children of men, come here, unrepentant sinners, see what Jesus does for you".

The other cantata for Passiontide is Jesus liegt in letzten Zügen. It is impossible to put an exact date to it, but it was written during Telemann's time in Frankfurt, since the only complete source of this cantata is a copy by his successor in Frankfurt, Johann Balthasar König. The poet is unknown, and it is suggested it could have been written by Telemann himself. Its content shows a strong similarity to the modern Passion-Oratorio, which aims at making the audience feel sympathy with the suffering Jesus. This is expressed in the first aria: "Jesus lies breathing his last; ah, he is closing his eyes. Why does bitter pain not also break my weary heart - since I see God's only Son lying pale and weak before me?" And the second aria expresses a strong identification with Jesus: "My dearest Saviour, might I but pale with you. With what desire and longing would I even today lie down by you and embrace you so very tenderly". This aria is set to a very slow tempo. In the next recitative the will of God is put in the centre: if it is God's will that I have to stay in this world, my consolation shall be that after my death the Saviour shall lead me to eternal life. And this leads to the closing aria of a much brighter character, with lively rhythms, ascending figures and coloraturas: "My spirit rejoices that it someday there above shall praise you with happy jubilation - there where you are praised without end".

Ach Herr, lehr uns bedenken doch is a cantata written for the 16th Sunday after Trinity. It is one of the cantatas from the collection preserved in the library of the Brussels Conservatoire. The raising from the dead of the young man from Nain (St Luke 7) was the subject of the gospel for this sunday. In this cantata this story is taken as a reason to contemplate man's mortality. The cantata opens with a chorale beginning with the words: "Ah Lord, teach us to consider well that someday we shall die". The first recitative puts the audience in its place: "You who in the world believe that the end of your life is far in the future flatter yourselves in vain". In the next aria man's life is compared to a flower whose splendour suddenly fades when a harsh wind blows - this is depicted by a series of notes at the same pitch. In the next recitative a conclusion is drawn: I think about my death every day so that it "may not befall me before I have set my house in order". The next aria is a prayer that Jesus may "speak to my soul that it (...) may not be afraid when I lay my body down to rest in the quiet grave". This prayer is continued in the concluding chorale: "O true God, deliver me from all distress at my final hour".

For the 21st Sunday after Trinity Telemann wrote the cantata which also gave this disc its title, Ich will den Kreuzweg gerne gehen. It is an early work whose text was written by Erdmann Neumeister. This text also seems to have inspired the anonymous poet of Bach's cantata Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (BWV 56). The first aria states the willingness to share in Jesus' way of the cross, which is the inevitable result of being adopted as God's child. The following recitative underlines the inevitable connection between being a Christian and bearing Jesus' cross: "There is no Christian where there is no cross". The cross is even "a pleasant burden". Behind this is the faith that "what God does is well done" - here the first line of the popular hymn is quoted: "Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan". The next aria has an uplifting character which is reflected by the use of a major key: "The myrrhs of the pains are sugar to the heart". In the next recitative the expectation of being in heaven is expressed: "The cross is my ladder to heaven; on it I climb up to God". The last aria expresses the longing for being received in heaven: "If the hour of my departure is not yet near, then give me but the answer: Yes!". On the last line the music speeds up, and the word "ja" is repeated several times, and then, after a short pauze, the cantata ends with another "ja" in the bass' lowest register.

Lastly, Was gibst du denn, o meine Seele, written for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity. Of all cantatas on this disc its connection to Passiontide is the loosest. It is rather a cantata for Advent, but in the Lutheran theology there is a strong connection between Advent and Christmas on the one hand and Jesus' Passion on the other. I would like to refer here to Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 599), the first chorale from the Orgelbüchlein of Johann Sebastian Bach, in which the falling motifs clearly point into the direction of the Passion. The cantata opens with a chorale on the melody of 'Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten' (Georg Neumark, 1657): "What then do you give, O my soul, to God, who daily gives you everything? (...) Give him your heart alone". In the next recitative the heart is urged to "assume God's image" and to "throw away what is called world and sinfulness". The next aria follows it up: "Renew your senses, multiply love, and seek in faith what pleases Jesus". The believer then states his determination "to make room in my heart's home for no other but Jesus alone". The following aria says that Satan has lost: "Satan, now you can accomplish nothing, away with your lust". The closing chorale then specifically refers to Jesus' Passion, also because of the choice of the melody of 'O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden': "His blood he has shed for me, poor little worm. That I might be redeemed he suffered much agony and pain. How could there be greater love on this earth?"

There are a number of moments when Telemann eloquently translates the text into music, some of which have been mentioned above. He also singles out key words in the text by setting them to a melismatic figure, both in recitatives as in arias. This is very effective as these cantatas are mostly rather introverted which is logical considering their subject. That doesn't mean they are dull - on the contrary: what is striking here is the way Telemann has been able to translate every cantata's content into music. The interpreters are fully at home in Telemann's musical idiom, and as a result these performances are exactly as they should be. Klaus Mertens' diction is exemplary, and so is his declamatory performance of the recitatives. The instrumentalists play at the same level, and show they understand the texts of these cantatas as well.

Apart from being another important addition to the growing catalogue of recordings of Telemann's vocal music, this disc is also increases the choice of music for Passiontide.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

CD Reviews