It is rather difficult to understand why Telemann's
Passions are not better known. Perhaps it is the fault of the statistics,
which are rather astounding. Whereas Bach developed his St. Matthew
Passion over a number of years as it was repeated, Telemann simply wrote
a new St. Matthew Passion when needed. Whilst in Hamburg he wrote one
passion setting per year for performance in one of the city churches.
This amounts to 46 passion settings, of which 20 survive. In addition
to this there are the Passion Oratorios, settings of Gospel paraphrases
designed for the concert hall rather than church. There are also eleven
St. Matthew Passions in Telemann's catalogue. This one dates from 1746,
midway through his tenure in Hamburg.
Telemann's Passion settings are often rather more congregation-friendly
than Bach's. For a start, this one lasts a mere 75 minutes. The chorales
are harmonised in a simple way as befitted their liturgical function,
designed to encourage congregational participation (the original text
books printed just the first line of the chorale along with a page reference
to the Hamburg Hymnal). The Passion has an altogether lighter feel than
Bach's. Telemann uses relatively modest orchestration (perhaps because
at Passion-tide, aesthetic listening pleasure was not to be a primary
consideration). In the arias he eschews the baroque contrapuntal approach
in favour of the newer "galant" style. Using this sensitive style he
is less interested in counter-pointing an obbligato instrument to the
vocal line. Here, he uses charm, delicacy and clarity to enable the
vocal line to attain expressivity. A similar procedure can be seen in
some of Handel's later operas where he consciously thinned and modernised
This musical difference between Telemann's and Bach's
Passions is reflected in the moral aspect of the pieces. Bach's Passions
give a dramatic account of the passion of Christ to emphasise to the
congregation their own sinfulness and the need for the remission of
sins via Jesus's death on the cross. Bach uses his substantial and complex
choruses and arias to bring this home to the audience. Telemann's Passions,
by contrast, are more affected by the Enlightenment where the aim of
religious music was to make the congregation better people. The music
had to be easily accessible and stir up the listeners emotions.
The Passion opens directly with a choral. Telemann
uses these sparingly: three near the beginning of the Passion, one after
Jesus is crowned King of the Jews, one whilst Jesus is on the cross
and the final choral. The remaining chorus contributions are mainly
turbae and all have a dramatic function. The chorus never really comments
or meditates on the meaning of the action. Telemann is imaginative when
it comes to the choruses and they serve a strong structural function
within the Passion. On this recording the Collegium Vocale des Bach-Chores
Siegen are excellent. They sound a smallish group and articulate the
music with lucid diction and vigour.
The bulk of the work is carried by the Evangelist -
the part written mainly in secco recitative. Wilfried Jochens makes
a fine, expressive Evangelist, keeping the tempo going but articulating
the words with admirable clarity and meaning. Jesus's words are sung
by the bass, Achim Rück. He has a fine, dark voice and makes a
suitably strong Jesus. Telemann sets Jesus's words as arioso, accompanied
by a rich string accompaniment and Wimmer takes advantage of the expressive
opportunities that this gives him.
The first aria is given to Peter. Stefan Dörr
sings the tenor arias as well as the tenor parts (Peter, Caiaphas) in
the recitative. An interesting feature of Peter's aria is that after
the B section, the Evangelist and the Chorus continue in a naturalistic
way, before the tenor repeats the A section. Dörr sings this aria
in a fine, dramatic fashion and his timbre is nicely differentiated
from Jochens as Evangelist. Dörr gets two arias, this first one
as Peter and a second one, as Jesus, during the flagellation - another
interesting feature of this work.
A further intriguing feature is the fact that some
of the Soprano and Alto arias are allocated to allegorical figures.
Soprano, Barbara Schlick, has four Arias included one as 'Innocence'
and another as 'Faith'. Her first aria, as 'Innocence', is a fine piece
with a rather Handelian horn part. Her singing of the final aria in
the piece, as the allegorical figure of 'Faith', is one of the highlights
of the disc. Her fragility is ideal for this music and she is adept
at using Telemann's virtuoso lines for expressive purposes.
Alto, Claudia Schubert, has two arias one as 'Truth'
and another as 'The Repentant Soul'. She has an attractive, firm voice
but is rather taxed by the more virtuoso sections of the arias. Interestingly,
she also sings Judas's recitatives. Perhaps Telemann was trying to make
a point or perhaps he was simply being practical.
The arias owe something to the style of the contemporary
opera arias (Telemann also wrote operas for the Hamburg opera). But
it is also noticeable that in the final section of the Passion, Telemann
manages to construct an almost operatic sequence out of the rather unpromising
mix of recitative, arioso, chorus and choral.
Barock-Orchester "La Stravaganza-Köln" gets no
overture to play and the arias have no substantial ritornelli, but they
bring a warmth and clarity to Telemann's orchestration, accompanying
in a stylish and sympathetic manner. Their accompaniment of the arias
has a rhythmic crispness and bounce that is appealing. This shows a
real feeling for the underlying dance rhythms. Conductor Ulrich Stötzel,
who throughout shows sincere empathy with this music, keeps the work
flowing, without it ever seeming rushed.
This is not the work's first outing on disc. I have
a recording with forces from Darmstadt under Wolfgang Seeliger, issued
in 1994 on Christophorus. This uses modern instruments, but is a historically
aware performance that has the advantage of Hans Peter Blochwitz as
a mellifluous (if somewhat light-voiced) Evangelist. There the soloists,
particularly Anton Scharinger as Jesus, try to give the piece more dramatic
weight than it needs. Stötzel's performance is spread over two
rather sparse CDs (at bargain price) whereas the Darmstadt performance
is on one, very well filled disc.
The booklet for this recording leaves something to
be desired as it only prints the libretto in German. Apart from that
I have no reservations about recommending this recording of this fascinating
and underrated work.