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Johann Sebastian BACH & Georg Philipp TELEMANN: "Sacred Cantatas"

Philippe Jaroussky, alto
Freiburger Barockorchester
Dir: Petra Müllejans

rec: Dec 12 - 19, 2015, Freiburg, Ensemblehaus
Erato - 0825646491599 (CD, DVD) (© 2016) ([CD] 74'57"; [DVD] 23')
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores JS Bach

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Ich habe genung (BWV 82); Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170); Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Die stille Nacht (Der am Ölberg zagende Jesus) (TWV 1,364); Jesus liegt in letzten Zügen (Der sterbende Jesus) (TWV 1,983)

[soli] Ann-Kathrin Brüggemann, oboe; Petra Müllejans, violin; Juan de la Rubia, organ

The sacred music of Georg Philipp Telemann is taken much more seriously these days than has been the case in the past. The growing number of discs with this part of his oeuvre attests to that. However, the combination of Telemann and Bach on one disc is still pretty rare. I assume that in their heart of hearts many performers consider Bach the superior composer, with whom Telemann can't really compete. Obiously everyone is entitled to his opinion, but a comparison between composers doesn't make much sense, especially not if they, despite being almost exact contemporaries, worked in different surroundings and for different audiences. The atmosphere in Leipzig was very different from that in Hamburg and the two composers also had different biographies. It is not so much a matter of being superior or inferior, but a matter of different parameters. Telemann can only be appreciated, if he is not compared with Bach. How difficult it is to avoid this, shows Simon Heighes in his liner-notes to the present disc. The aria which opens Telemann's cantata Jesus liegt in letzten Zügen "has an air of almost Bachian pathos". There we go again.

Philippe Jaroussky, who - as far as I know - has never recorded German music, deserves much praise for his choice of music for this recording, although there is also reason for some criticism. The latter concerns the fact that only one piece is intended for his voice, Bach's cantata Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust. The second cantata from his pen, Ich habe genung, was originally scored for bass; later Bach reworked it for soprano, then for alto, and finally returned to the bass. From that perspective a performance by an alto is fully justified. However, for reasons not mentioned in the booklet Jaroussky decided not to perform Bach's own alto version, but rather the first version for bass in an transposition up an octave. He does the same in the two cantatas by Telemann, which are both intended for a bass. Heighes writes: "For this recording, and following the pragmatic performing principles of the period, the vocal parts have been transposed up an octave, where the alto register serves the expressive Passiontide sentiments particularly well". There can be little doubt that composers were pragmatic, but that doesn't give performers unlimited freedom to do what they like. These two cantatas were not intended for general use - such as those in the collection Harmonischer Gottesdienst - and therefore a pragmatic approach was not really needed. As far as the expressive element is concerned, not long ago the bass Klaus Mertens recorded a disc with Passion cantatas by Telemann (including the two performed by Jaroussky), which were all originally scored for bass; they are not short on 'Passiontide sentiments' at all

Der am Ölberg zagende Jesus dates from 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, such as 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".

Jesus liegt in letzten Zügen is also intended for Passiontide. 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 the text could have been written by Telemann himself. Again its content shows a strong similarity to the 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 coloratura: "My spirit rejoices that it someday there above shall praise you with happy jubilation - there where you are praised without end".

The two cantatas by Bach belong among his best-known and most famous and have been recorded numerous times. Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170) dates from 1726. In that year Bach composed several cantatas for an alto soloist, probably because he had a specially gifted singer at his disposal. The text was written by Georg Christian Lehms, who published it as part of a collection of cantata librettos in 1711. The text includes some strong contrasts, especially between the first and the second aria. Notable in this cantata is the obbligato role of the organ. It is played here - as is common practice - on a small positive organ. The use of a larger organ, such as Bach had at his disposal, offers more opportunities to adapt the registration to the Affekte of such an aria. It is one of the reasons that the second aria, 'Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Seelen', makes less impression than Damien Guillon's recording, in which Maude Gratton plays an organ which has been built after models in Thuringia from Bach's time. However, it is also due to Jaroussky's singing, which is quite good but a bit too sweet and harmless. Guillon's interpretation has more depth and as a result makes a more lasting impression. Jaroussky is more convincing in the opening aria, with its pastoral character.

Ich habe genung was written for the Feast of the Purification of Mary (or Candlemas) on 2 February 1727. Its central theme is the longing for death and eternal life of the believer, now that Jesus has come. Its background is the canticle of Simeon, which as 'Nunc dimittis' has become a part of liturgy of the Christian Church: "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace ... for mine eyes have seen thy salvation". The fact that Bach returned to this cantata several times and that the first recitative and the ensuing aria, 'Schlummert ein', were included in the Clavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach, attests to Bach's satisfaction with this work. Especially the middle aria is extremely popular, but also not easy to perform. Its lullaby character can be easily exaggerated, and that is exactly what happens here. The tempo is a bit too slow, and the contrast between the two sections - or rather three as this aria has an ABACA structure - is understated. In the dacapos of the A section Jaroussky takes too much time in the closing cadenza. He also takes too much freedom in his application of ornamentation, something which should be added in Bach's music with great modesty anyway.

I have quite some reservations about these performances. However, I don't want to give the impression that this disc is not good. Considering that Jaroussky has hardly sung any German sacred music before, the result is in several ways surprisingly good. His German pronunciation is respectable, although certainly not perfect. His diction is good enough; only here and there I noted a bit too much legato. There could have been stronger dynamic accents on good notes, and that also goes for the instrumental parts. I especially like the way Jaroussky sings the recitatives, often a weak point in cantata recordings. He takes the right amount of rhythmic freedom here, and performs them in a really declamatory manner. That is where his wide experience in opera comes in very handy. The vocal parts include some low notes, but he deals with them pretty well, sometimes going into his chest register. Overall there is certainly no lack of expression, and especially the two cantatas by Telemann receive a convincing performance. The opening of Jesus liegt in letzten Zügen is one of the highlights.

It is especially the inclusion of two fine Telemann cantatas which makes me recommend this disc. Hopefully an increasing number of music lovers will realise that there is more to Telemann than usually meets the ear.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Philippe Jaroussky
Freiburger Barockorchester

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