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Telemann: St Matthew Passion, 1750 (TWV 5,35)

Marcus Ullmann (Evangelist), tenor; Jörg Hempel (Jesus), bass; Ulrike Staude, soprano; Elisabeth Wilke, contralto; Martin Wölfel (Judas), alto; Egbert Junghanns, bass
Magdeburger Kammerchor (Lothar Hennig), Dresdner Barockorchester
Dir: Hans-Christoph Rademann
rec: March 17, 2000, Magdeburg, Kloster Unser Lieben Frauen (Konzerthalle 'Georg Philipp Telemann') (live recording during 15th Magdeburger Telemann-Festtage)
Raumklang - RK 2002 (2 CDs; 41'17"/52'56")

Georg Philipp Telemann's Passions have been almost neglected for a long time, but that has changed since about a decade. Several of his Passions have been recorded, and this recording is the latest. As far as I know it is the first recording of this Passion, which dates from 1750. There is still a lot to discover: during his years in Hamburg (1721 - 1767) Telemann has composed 46 Passions, one per year, to be performed in churches in Hamburg in the weeks before Easter. More than 20 of them have survived. These Passions are oratorio Passions, which means that they are based on the text of the gospels according to St Matthew, St Mark, St Luke or St John. Telemann also composed Passion oratorios, whose texts are paraphrases of the gospels. These were intended to be performed in concert halls rather than in church.
Although Telemann's Passions are intended for performance in church, they reflect the same spirit of Enlightenment as the Passion oratorios. The aim of religious music is to make the audience better people. Therefore the music had to be easily accessible. This explains the way Telemann has composed this Passion: in the booklet it is described as an "imaginative and elegant treatment of Christ's suffering". It is linked to Johann Mattheson's attitude to church music, which he once described like this: "I have the same intention as in the opera, namely to arouse and in a certain way stir up the listeners' emotions, be it towards love, joy, sadness, etc." Here we notice an important difference to the Passions by Johann Sebastian Bach. It was Bach's aim to give a dramatic account of the passion of Christ to imprint into the audience the awareness of their own sinfulness and the need of the remission of sins through Jesus' death at the cross. That element is certainly not absent in Telemann's Passion, but is less dominant because of the 'moralistic' element: the audience is sermonized and urged on. The difference in emphasis is reflected by the perspective of the arias and chorales. In Bach's Passions almost all of them are directed at Jesus, whereas in Telemann's Passion some arias are addressed at the Gläubige Seele (the pious soul), that is: the audience. This shifting perspective diminishes the inner coherence of this Passion.
The difference between Bach's Passions and this one by Telemann can be demonstrated in the light of the choruses at the end. In this Passion the chorus (Dein Werk, o Heiland, ist gelungen) contains an encouragement of the redeemed believers to praise the Lord now and always. Compare this with Bach's St Matthew Passion, which ends with a reference to the human conscience finding its rest in Jesus' death. And in Bach's St John Passion the chorus, before the closing chorale, says that Jesus' death opens the heaven and closes hell for the true believer. In short, whereas in Bach's Passions the perspective is exclusively 'vertical', in Telemann's Passion there is a strong additional 'horizontal' element, which is a clear reflection of the ideas of the Enlightenment.

Telemann's Passion is a thoroughly expressive work. This expression doesn't come from a specific treatment of harmony, as we find in Bach's Passions, but from the instrumental scoring (like the use of the recorder,which was an old-fashioned instrument in 1750, or the Quartflöte) -, instructions regarding the performance practice (like muted strings and pizzicato) and the melodic developments in the upper parts. There are some arias which show the influence of the opera. For example, the bass aria "Die Bosheit streckt die Löwenklauen" is a genuine rage aria. Another feature of this Passion is the fact that some arias are given to specific characters, although far less often than in the Passion oratorios of this time. There is an aria (with choir) sung by Judas after his betrayal of Jesus, and a duet between die betrübte Seele (the troubled soul) and Jesus.

As far as the performance is concerned, this is one of the better interpretations of Telemann's Passions that I know. The orchestra is playing very well, and the choir is also good. I would have liked a sharper articulated performance of the chorales, though. The 'minor roles' are performed by members of the choir, some of them good, others less so. The main soloists are all good, in particular the contralto Elisabeth Wilke, and the bass Egbert Junghanns. Jörg Hempel realises the part of Jesus very well, far better than Marcus Ullmann the part of the Evangelist. My main problem is the slow tempo and the lack of accents. The Evangelist should 'tell' (rather than 'sing') the story, in a natural tempo, on the basis of the text. There is a serious lack of tension in the way the story is told. And I'm pretty sure that the whole recording could have fit on just one CD if the part of the Evangelist would have been performed at the right tempo.
The booklet contains an interesting essay on the music by the editor, Carsten Lange. But, unfortunately, no instrumental scoring of the arias is given, and - which is unforgiveable - there is no English translation of the text.
This is a live recording, with all its pluses and minuses. I think more efforts should have been made to erase the background noises, like frequent coughing from the audience, and some bird chirping.
To sum up, a recommendable recording, but we have still to wait to find a recording which is really convincing in every aspect.

Johan van Veen (© 2002)

Relevant links:

Georg Philipp Telemann: Catalogue TWV
Magdeburger Kammerchor
Dresdner Barockorchester
Magdeburger Telemann-Festtage

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