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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767): "Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott - Festliche Kantaten zur Reformation" (Festive Cantatas for Reformation Day)

Simone Schwark, sopranoa; Johanna Krell, contraltob; Hans Jörg Mammel, tenorc; Markus Flaigd, Wolfgang Weiße, bass
Chamber Choir of the Erlöserkirche Bad Homburgf; Johann Rosenmüller Ensemble
Dir: Susanne Rohn

rec: April 13 - 16, 2016, Bad Homburg, Erlöserkirche
Christophorus - CHR 77405 (© 2017) (73'22")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott (TWV 1,419)d; Herr Gott, der du uns hast von unsrer Jugend an (TWV 1,742)bcf; Jesu wirst Du bald erscheinen (TWV 1,988)acdf; Welch' Getümmel erschüttert den Himmel (TWV 1,1546)acef; Wertes Zion sei getrost (TWV 1,1606)abcdf

Hannes Rux, Almut Rux, Astrid Brachtendorf, trumpet; Arno Paduch, cornett; Christine Brand, Gerd Schulz, Uwe Haase, trombone; Nina Steinbronn, Betty Nieswandt, transverse flute; Susanne Neumeyer Kohnen, Martin Letz, oboe; Anette Sichelschmidt, Siv Thomassen, Beatrix Hellammer, Irina Kisselova, Eva Salonen-Jopp, Daniela Braun, violin; Anke Hörschelmann, Andrea Schmidt, viola; Olaf Reimers, cello; Niklas Sprenger, violone; Kristina Filthaut, dulcian; Thomas Wilhelm, harpsichord; Jürgen Banholzer, harpsichord, organ; Susanne Rohn, Bernhard Zosel, organ; Konrad Graf, timpani

The present disc connects two commemorations: 500 years of Reformation and the 250th anniversary of the death of Georg Philipp Telemann. As the latter was a Lutheran and for most of his life in the service of a church, it is to be expected that he composed several works for the commemoration of the Reformation. However, although the frontispiece of the disc suggests the programme includes music exclusively for the feast of the Reformation, it is a bit more complicated than that.

That has everything to do with the fact that until the 19th century there was no fixed date for the commemoration of the Reformation. In 1617, when the first centenary of this event was celebrated, it was planned to establish 31 October as the date for its commemoration. However, these attempts failed because of a lack of unanimity between the Lutheran and the Reformed German states. "After 1617, the feast was fixed for the first Sunday after 31st October in most Lutheran regions. Depending on the temporal position of Easter, this meant that the commemoration of the Reformation could fall on different Sundays of the ecclesiastical year around the beginning of November. As the very earliest and latest possible dates for Easter occur so rarely, the commemoration of the Reformation was frequently celebrated on the 23rd Sunday after Trinity. The relevant cantata texts were correspondingly formulated to be appropriate for performance on Reformation Day, but could also be utilised in years in which Reformation Day did not fall on this particular Sunday of the church year." (booklet)

This explains why the cantatas recorded here are intended for different days. Notable is that two of them were written for Michaelmas. Although there is no formal connection between the two feasts, thematically they are rather close and therefore it doesn't come as a surprise that Telemann chose the text of Luther's most famous chorale, Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott, for a cantata for Michaelmas. It is the earliest cantata in the programme and the only solo cantata. The first stanza is left unchanged; Telemann even kept the original rhythm intact. The bass sings the chorale, the violin adds embellishments. The stanzas two and three are sung to new music; both have instrumental obbligato parts for cello and violin respectively. For the closing stanza Telemann repeats the music of the first.

In contrast to this cantata Welch' Getümmel erschüttert den Himmel is a more 'traditional' cantata for Michaelmas, in that the scoring includes parts for trumpets and timpani, with two flutes, two oboes and strings. It has the typical belligerent character of pieces for this feast. The penultimate section is a chorus on the text which was frequently used in such pieces, for instance Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach: "Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft, und das Reich und die Macht". The cantata opens with two arias embracing a recitative, all for bass. Telemann vividly depicts the text: "What turmoil shakes the heavens, bringing terror and distress to the world?" The trumpets and timpani are used to great effect here, also in the second aria, which includes words like "horrible bellowing" and "moaning and screaming". Later we hear an aria for soprano with a virtuosic obbligato part for the trumpet.

Herr Gott, der du uns hast von unsrer Tugend an is a cantata specifically intended for the commemoration of the Reformation. The scoring is surprisingly modest: four voices, strings and bc. At Telemann's time there was nothing victorious about Reformation Day. Even Luther's famous chorale Ein' feste Burg - often called the 'national hymn' of Protestantism - received its belligerent character in the 19th century. The Epistle and Gospel readings of the day point in the direction of moderation: an injunction to steadfastness against the Adversary (2 Thessalonians 2) and a call to fear and honour God (Revelation 14). The cantata opens with a sinfonia, which is followed by an accompagnato for tenor, two arias for alto and bass respectively, embracing a chorale (Sollt' ich meinem Gott nicht singen). A chorus closes the work. In the alto aria there is a strong contrast between the A and B sections; that is emphasized here by allocating the B section to the soprano. This is a rather odd decision, for which I can't find any justification.

The disc opens with two cantatas on texts by Erdmann Neumeister. Wertes Zion sei getrost is for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity. Because of the large-scale scoring with parts for trumpets and timpani it is assumed that it was written for the bicentennial of the Reformation in 1717; moreover, in that year Reformation Day fell on that particular Sunday. There are no solo arias; the cantata opens with a duet of soprano and bass and the penultimate section is a duet of alto and tenor. The opening duet is followed by a setting of the first stanza of Ein' feste Burg for the tutti; here we hear the isometric rhythm which gradually developed in the course of time, probably because that way the chorales were more easy to sing for the congregation. The cantata ends with the choir singing "Halleluja".

Jesu wirst Du bald erscheinen is for the 26th Sunday after Trinity. This day occurs only in every three years in the ecclesiastical calender. It is telling that in the oeuvre of Bach only one cantata is intended for this Sunday (Wachtet! betet! betet! wachet!, BWV 70). The Epistle reading is from the second letter of Peter (ch 3), which is about the expectation of a new heaven and a new earth. The Gospel reading is about the Judgement of the world (Matthew 25). As this Sunday was close to Advent, the birth of Christ is connected to his second coming. Telemann's cantata, again on a text by Neumeister, was probably written in 1712, when Telemann worked in Eisenach. The early date of composition could explain the scoring with a cornett and three sackbuts, a relict of the 17th century. They come into action in the opening aria for the tenor, where they play the chorale Es ist gewisslich an der Zeit; the melody used here is better known with the text Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier. This aria has also a quite complicated rhythm; unfortunately the part of the strings, whose rhythm differs from that of the tenor and the brass, is not clearly audible. In the chorus 'Kommt her' Telemann creates a contrast between the high and the low voices, supported by high and low winds respectively. After an aria for soprano the cantata closes with the choir singing three stanzas from the chorale Herr Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht.

In its first paragraph the liner-notes remind us of the rather negative assessment of Telemann in the 19th and early 20th centuries, in contrast to the strong appreciation of Bach's music. Fortunately those days are long gone: in our time Telemann is taken seriously, and the frequent release of discs with music from his pen attests to that. His chamber music is very much part of the standard repertoire of baroque ensembles, and many of his overtures are regularly performed. However, so far much of his vocal music has remained unknown, which is partly due to the size of his output in this department. It is not surprising that four of the five cantatas on this disc are world premiere recordings. Listening to this disc one is struck by the wide variety of forms and scorings as well as the way Telemann is able to bring out the meaning of a text with many different means. In no way these cantatas are inferior to what Bach has created.

Overall this disc is a pretty strong case for Telemann's sacred output. In particular the contributions of the soloists are outstanding. Hans Jörg Mammel is impressive in his treatment of the recitatives which he sings with the right amount of rhythmic freedom - often a problem in this kind of repertoire - and his exposition of the text. Markus Flaig delivers a fine performance of the solo cantata, both in the arias and in the two chorale settings; singing a chorale in an appropriate way is far less easy than one may think. I would have liked him also to sing the bass solos in Welch' Getümmel erschüttert den Himmel. I don't know why Wolfgang Weiß was engaged for this cantata. He sings well, but his voice is just not powerful enough; Flaig would probably have given a more dramatic account of this part. Simone Schwark and Johanna Krell leave nothing to be desired. The instrumentalists are equally responsive to the text. The trumpeters do a great job, especially considering the virtuosity of some of their parts.

I have already mentioned some issues, such as the weakness of the strings in the tenor aria in Jesu wirst Du bald erscheinen and the sharing of the alto aria in Herr Gott, der du uns hast von unsrer Tugend an between soprano and alto. However, the main weakness is the choir. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with it, but with its 40 voices it is far too large. Such large choirs did not exist in Telemann's time, and it seems unlikely, that he ever had access to larger forces than four or probably eight singers (soloists and ripienists). As a result the choral parts lack transparency and often the text is hard to understand. But even with such an ensemble it must be possible to produce a more speech-like performance. There is a lack of dynamic accents and I would have liked a more differentiated treatment of the text. The choral parts are just too heavy-handed to be really convincing.

Even so, I recommend to investigate this disc. Every single cantata here is a treasure and contributes to the further elevation of its composer to the prominence in music history he deserves.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Markus Flaig
Johanna Krell
'Hans Jörg Mammel
Simone Schwark
Wolfgang Weiß
Chamber Choir of the Erlöserkirche Bad Homburg
Johann Rosenmüller Ensemble

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