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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767): St Luke Passion 1748 (TWV 5,33)

Veronika Winter, soprano; Anne Bierwirth, contralto; Julian Podger (Evangelist), tenor; Clemens Heidrich (Jesus), Matthias Vieweg, bass
Rheinische Kantorei; Das Kleine Konzert
Dir: Hermann Max

rec: March 13, 2010 (live), Magdeburg, Konzerthalle Georg Philipp Telemann
CPO - 777 601-2 (2 CDs) (© 2011) (1.31'32")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E

Without having seen a list of all oratorio passions which are based on the Gospels I think it is pretty fair to say that relatively few are based on the Gospel after St Luke. Telemann composed 11, and this was due to the fact that the order of the gospels narratives according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had been the customary sequence ever since 1691. The St Luke Passion of 1748 is one of the five from Telemann's pen which have survived.

It was written at a time when a Passion which was structured around the narrative in one of the gospels was the exception rather than the rule. At the time the genre of the Passion oratorio was much more popular. One of the most famous was the libretto by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, which was set by various composers, including Telemann. But such works were usually not performed as part of the liturgy, as Brockes' Passion was not based on the biblical narrative, but was rather a paraphrase and included personal reflections by the various characters which play a role in the Passion story.

The Passions were of great importance in Hamburg. A specific Passion was to be performed on a number of Sundays before Easter in the principal churches, and during Holy Week in the various other churches. Because of this practice the writing and performance of a Passion took much of the time of the city director of music, a post Telemann held since September 1721. He started with a Passion after St Matthew, which has been lost. His first piece in this genre in Hamburg was the St Mark Passion of 1723.

Oratorio Passions usually consisted of the biblical narrative, performed by the Evangelist and the various characters in the story and choruses of the people (turbae), choruses on a free text, stanzas from hymns which were known to the congregation as well as poetic texts in the form of arias and accompanied recitatives. The St Luke Passion of 1748 is notable for the number of the latter. In his liner-notes Carsten Lange writes that "they here aim at moving the listener with variety formed by elements such as harmonic dissonances, expressive chord beats, fast scales, and quiet sound impressions and at holding him emotionally in their spell". These features are also part of the arias in which in particular the orchestral part expresses the content through harmony, melodic turns and various playing techniques.

Remarkable is also the number of choruses. The oratorio begins with a dictum, a quotation from the Bible (in this case 1 Petre 1, vs 18-19) which was rather old-fashioned for the time. It opens a sequence of four movements which prepare the audience for what is going to come; one could call them a kind of prologue. The chorus is followed by an aria for soprano: "Hither, you sinners, in horror to behold God's divine wrath made terribly manifest in Jesus." Then the soprano has an accompagnato which urges the audience to realize what Jesus has gone through: "You sinners! Let this arouse you to fear, and Christians, you, to holy affection." This section closes with a chorale: "Now I thank you from the heart, Jesus, for all you endured." Only then the Evangelist starts the narrative after the gospel of St Luke.

As far as the text is concerned it needs mention that at various moments the second coming of Christ and the Last Judgment is referred to. The first time is the chorus 'Siehe! Er kömmt mit den Wolken' which is a quotation of Revelations 1, vs 7: "Behold! He comes with the clouds, and all eyes and the men who struck him will see him, and all the nations of the earth will howl. Yes! Amen!" Another reference can be found in the bass aria 'Ja, Richter!' which ends with the line: "He, whose fire someday will consume them, for he is at once man and God". The second bass links up with this as he refers to "the last thunder" and "fiery flames" ('Ihr sollt ihn sehn'). The closing chorus then covers the period from the crucifixion to the second coming. The references to the Last Judgment are certainly inspired by the gospel after St Luke which quotes Jesus who himself refers to the end of the world: "You daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me but weep for yourselves and four your children! For, behold, the time will come in which it will be said: Blessed are the barren and the wombs that have not given birth and the breasts that never suckled! Then they will begin to say to the mountains: Fall on us! And to the hills: Cover us!"

This Passion is in many ways a quite dramatic piece, and it is easy to hear here Telemann the opera composer. This justifies the rather theatrical performance for which Hermann Max apparently has opted. Even so, I think he has gone a bit too far. That regards in particular the interpretation of the Evangelist. Julian Podger gives a good account of this part, but often I find it too pathetic and too theatrical. It is not easy to find the middle way between doing too little and doing too much. I feel that the latter is the case. I have the same problems with the performance of Matthias Vieweg who sometimes comes dangerously close to crossing the line of good taste. That said, he deserves praise for trying to express the content of his accompagnato and his two arias. The performances of Veronika Winter and Anne Bierwirth are very good. The choir and orchestra are in fine form. It is questionable, though, whether a choir of this size is historically justified. In his liturgical music Telemann usually didn't have many singers at his disposal.

This is not the ideal performance of this Passion, but as it is the first recording it is a major addition to the Telemann discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Rheinische Kantorei

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