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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767): "Festive Cantatas"

Miriam Feuersinger, sopranoa; Franz Vitzthum, altob; Klaus Mertens, bass-baritonec
Collegium vocale Siegen; Hannoversche Hofkapelle
Dir: Ulrich Stötzel

rec: May 26 - 28, 2014, Siegen, Martinikirche
Hänssler Classic - CD 98.047 (© 2015) (58'04")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Der Geist giebt Zeugnis (TWV 1,243)b; Der Herr lebet (TWV 1,284)abc; Ehr und Dank sey Dir gesungen (TWV 1,413)c

Georg Philipp Telemann is one of the most fashionable composers from the baroque era these days. Recordings of his oeuvre are released on a regular basis. This disc includes three world premiere recordings. That is hardly surprising considering Telemann's huge oeuvre: the Telemann catalogue includes 3,600 compositions, according to the booklet (I haven't counted them). Especially in the genre of sacred works it is easy to find pieces which have never been performed in our time.

The three cantatas recorded here are from the same season: 1748/49, known as the "angel year". They have the same symmetrical structure: they open with a chorus - mostly a dictum, a quotation from the Bible - or a chorale which are repeated at the end. In between are two arias embracing a recitative. The cantatas selected for this recording also have an identical orchestral scoring: two trumpets, timpani, strings and basso continuo.

Der Herr lebet is for the first day of Easter. It opens with a chorus on the text of 2 Samuel 22, 47: "The Lord lives and praised be my refuge". It is followed by an aria for bass which includes musical figures associated with battle scenes. That can be explained from the text: "Now rejoice, ye heavens! Hell is conquered, for Christ has won and Satan has lost". A short recitative for alto leads to the second aria, scored for soprano and strings, with the indication "earnest and resolute", which is in strong contrast to the first aria. The text is a prayer: "Help me to overcome the enemy". The cantata ends with a repeat of the opening chorus.

The second cantata is for the feast of St Michael, also known as Michaelmas: Ehr und Dank sey Dir gesungen. As so many cantatas for this feast it is scored for bass which is the most appropriate type of voice for the belligerent scenes such cantatas refer to. These reflect the reading of the day: Revelation 12, vs 7-12, which describes the fight of the archangel Michael with the dragon. The cantata opens with a chorale of thanksgiving: "Praise and thanks be sung to three, great God". The first aria has the indication "raging", and that is a good description of the content: "Rage yet, Satan, with utmost fury: I laugh at your frenzy, for God's sentinels guard me". The ensuing recitative refers to the gospel reading of the day: Matthew 18, vs 1-18 which says that the Kingdom of heaven belongs to the children and that their angels look upon the countenance of God. "Ah Lord, thy angel shields those alone who strive to fear thee". The next aria is "friendly and confident" and links up with the recitative: "Ministering spirits of eternal substance! Friendly guardians of the children of light". It is remarkable that the scoring doesn't change here: the strings are again joined by trumpets and timpani. Even so, this aria is quite different in character from the first. The symmetry of the cantatas from this season manifests itself once again, but - in contrast to the two other cantatas - the opening chorale is not repeated. Text and melody are different which is not mentioned in the liner-notes; the text of the chorale is also omitted. It is Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein, the same chorale which ends Bach's St John Passion.

Der Geist giebt Zeugnis is for the first Sunday of Pentecost (Whit Sunday). It opens again with a dictum: "The Spirit bears witness to our spirit that we are God's children" (Romans 8, vs 16). The two arias and the recitative are for alto. In the first he is accompanied by strings and bc: "Who am I, and what is my heart, that God will dwell in me?" This is connected to the gospel reading of the day, John 14, vs 23-31, and especially vs 23: "Jesus replied, 'Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.'" After the recitative the second aria is another prayer: "Spirit of consolation and of grace, lead me always on the true path!". The opening chorus is repeated and brings the cantata to a close.

These cantatas show how well Telemann was able to set a text. There are many examples of eloquent text expression; some of these are mentioned in the booklet. It is also interesting to hear how differentiated Telemann uses the same scoring, with trumpets and timpani to texts where one wouldn't expect them. The arias are mostly quite long and technically demanding. They show a clear influence of opera. Let us not forget that Telemann was one of Germany's most significant opera composers in the second quarter of the 18th century.

The solo parts receive pretty much ideal performances. Klaus Mertens has the perfect voice for a cantata like Ehr und Dank sey Dir gesungen, and the first aria from the Easter cantata also comes off very well. Only the lowest note in that aria is not that clearly audible; Mertens is more a baritone than a bass, and on that low note the whole orchestra enters. The second aria from that cantata is beautifully sung by Miriam Feuersinger who has a nice and flexible voice. Franz Vitzthum is impressive in the cantata for Whit Sunday, especially in the first aria which includes some pretty high notes, but these come off very nicely. He also adds some beautiful ornamentation.

The use of a choir - probably comprising about 20 voices, but the booklet omits a list of its members - is debatable in cantatas from Telemann's Hamburg years. He had no more than about eight singers at his disposal. Whereas the text in the solo parts is always clearly understandable, that is much harder in the choruses and chorales. That said, the choir sings very well, with good dynamic accents based on the text and a good articulation. The orchestra is also playing well, and especially the contribution of the trumpeters is praiseworthy.

The booklet should have been edited more carefully. I have already mentioned that the closing chorale from the cantata Ehr und Dank sey Dir gesungen is omitted. In the penultimate paragraph of his liner-notes Ulrich Stötzel refers to this cantata and calls it a Pentecost Cantata, but as we have seen it is for Michaelmas. This error should have been corrected. However, we should be grateful that the booklet includes the lyrics with English translations. Sadly that is not obvious these days.

More importantly, we get here three very fine specimens of Telemann's sacred music in splendid performances.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Miriam Feuersinger
Klaus Mertens
Franz Vitzthum
Collegium vocale Siegen
Hannoversche Hofkapelle

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