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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767)
Der Tod Jesu, oratorio (TWV 5,6)
Greetje Anthoni (soprano); Yves Saelens (tenor); Stefan Geyer (bass)
Vocal Ensemble Ex Tempore
Baroque Orchestra Le Mercure Galant/Florian Heyerick
rec. June 1995, Studio Steurbout, Ghent, Belgium
ETCETERA KTC1289 [69:46]

When Telemann was appointed music director in Hamburg in 1721 it was his duty to compose one Passion every year. As a result he composed 46 Passions on the four gospels in turn. Towards the end of his career, during the 1750s and 1760s, he also composed some Passion oratorios, which were not based on the text of the Gospels, but rather on poetical paraphrases of or reflections on the story of the Passion. These were intended to be performed in the concert hall rather than during services in the church. One of the poets who provided a paraphrase text was Karl Wilhelm Ramler. 'Der Tod Jesu' was set to music by several composers: Carl Heinrich Graun, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, Johann Friedrich Reichardt and Carl Wilhelm Zelter. Telemann seems to have been fond of Ramler's poetical work, as he wrote several other works on Ramler texts. These included 'Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu' and the secular cantata 'Ino'.
Ramler lived in Berlin for most of his life, and moved in the same circles as the main literary and artistic personalities of his time. 'Der Tod Jesu' was the result of a commission from Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia, the younger sister of Frederick II. She tried to set the text to music herself, but in the end it came down to Carl Heinrich Graun, Kapellmeister at the court in Berlin to write the music. It was first performed in 1755, the same year Telemann's setting was performed in Hamburg. Interestingly, Telemann's performance took place one week earlier. It is not known how Telemann became acquainted with the text: it wasn't published and Ramler complained about the 'laziness' of the copyists. Anyway, it is known that Telemann and Graun corresponded extensively about the technical and aesthetic aspects of marrying Ramler's words with music. Later they also performed each other's work. There seems to have been no serious rivalry between the two composers.
'Der Tod Jesu' strongly reflects the aesthetic and religious ideas of the mid-18th century. The ideals of the time were expressed by an anonymous author in regard to Der Tod Jesu: "A musical poet must know in the main that music expresses only natural and unaffected passions and emotions. It tol­erates absolutely no force and becomes am­biguous and confused as soon as nature is lacking. As in the first case, the proper ex­pression is determined by the composer him­self; so in the second case he will seek in vain with all his effort. It is thus that no-less-simple ideas and images, long narratives, flowery and pointed styles of speech are entirely inap­propriate for music."
The religious climate in Germany, and particularly in Hamburg, around 1750 was strongly influenced by the Enlightenment. Here Jesus is presented as a model of the virtuous life. The chorus "Christus hat uns ein Vorbild gelassen" says it all: "Christ has left us an example, that we might follow in his footsteps." In most choruses and arias the events around the passion and death are related to the life of the individual believer. For instance, the recitativo accompagnato which refers to Jesus saying: "My father, forgive them, for they know not what they do", is followed by a duet by soprano and bass which begins with the lines: "Enemies who trouble me, behold how much my heart loves you. To forgive you is my revenge."
It is in the recitativi accompagnati that we find a paraphrase of the Passion gospel, told from the perspective of an involved bystander. It goes like this: "Ah, my Emmanuel! There he lies, deeply bowed in the dust, struggling with death". Or: "Murderers rush in: I see the murderers ... Oh! it is happening to him!" All recitatives are 'accompanied', meaning that the instruments of the orchestra are involved. The work is scored for two transverse flutes, oboe/oboe d'amore, horn, strings and bc. Telemann makes clever use of the instruments to illustrate the meaning of the text and the emotions expressed. The unmistakable changes in the aesthetic ideals of the time do not mean that the idea of 'music as speech' has been rejected. That point is made abundantly clear in Telemann's setting of 'Der Tod Jesu'. Time and again the composer illustrates the text with musical figures, like an ascending sequence of notes on the words "dringt zum Herrn" (reaches the Lord - aria 'Ein Gebet um neue Stärke'). In the following recitative the words "er aber ... nahet sich den Feinden selbst" (he approaches his enemies) strong staccato chords symbolise the steadfastness of Jesus' actions. Contrast this with the tempo slowing down on the passage "Sein Petrus folgt, der einzige von allen" (His Peter follows, the only out of them all), depicting the hesitancy of the disciple. As the last recitative begins with the words "Seraphim descend from all the stars" the flutes, the strings and then the basso continuo repeat the same descending figures several times, suggesting the arrival of angels from every part of the universe.
As the previous description suggests the orchestra has a very important role to play, and the members of Le Mercure Galant fulfil their duties in a most impressive way, reacting with great care and agility to every nuance in the text. In the case of the singers the main requirement is the ability to tell the story as paraphrased in the recitatives and to express the very personal emotions they contain. The soprano and bass do a very fine job in this regard. I am a little less impressed by the tenor but at least his role is limited to one recitative and aria. The choir does well in the choruses and chorales, in which great attention is paid to the text, with strong dynamic accents and very clear articulation.
As much as I prefer a Passion based on the text of the Gospel this is a very interesting and musically satisfying example of Passion music from the time of the Enlightenment. Those who also have Graun's setting - a good recording is Sigiswald Kuijken's on Hyperion - will find the differences between these two settings quite striking. As even the experts differ as to which of them is the most 'modern' they can figure out for themselves what the virtues of the respective settings are. This performance has all the qualities necessary to convince the listener of the virtues of Telemann's setting.
Johan van Veen


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