Georg Philipp TELEMANN
(1681 - 1767)
Der Tag des Gerichts, Singgedicht in vier Betrachtungen (TWV 6,8)* [70:45]
Die Donnerode (TWV 6,3)**, cantata in two parts [42:28]
Der Herr ist König (TWV 8,6)***, cantata [22:59]
Ann Monoyios*/***, Barbara Schlick** (soprano), David Cordier*, Axel Köhler** (alto), Wilfried Jochens (tenor), Harry van der Kamp***, Stephan Schreckenberger, Hans-Georg Wimmer** (bass)
Rheinische Kantorei, Das Kleine Konzert/Hermann Max
rec. April-May 1990, Immanuelskirche, Wuppertal-Barmen*/***; March 1992, Kirche St. Osdag, Mandelsloh**, Germany. DDD
Texts and translations included
CAPRICCIO C5098 [70:45 + 65:30] 

In the 1980s and 1990s the German conductor Hermann Max made a number of recordings for the radio channel WDR3 (Cologne). These were instrumental in the revaluation of Georg Philipp Telemann as a composer of vocal music. Those recordings which were mostly then released on disc on the Capriccio label have been reissued recently. Today Telemann is more generally appreciated and a number of his vocal works have been recorded. This part of his oeuvre is still underestimated, and because of that the reissue of Max's recordings is most welcome. That is even more the case as his interpretations are mostly unsurpassed. This particular set of two discs contains two large-scale pieces which have to be ranked among the composer's masterpieces.
The oratorio - or Singgedicht, as Telemann called it - Der Tag des Gerichts and the cantata Die Donnerode are from the last period of Telemann's life. Despite his age he had lost none of his creative powers. These two pieces are ranked among his masterworks, and so are other large-scale works from this period: Der Tod Jesu (The death of Jesus), Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection) and Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu (The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus). In his liner-notes Wolf Hobohm suggests these four compositions could be meant as a kind of cycle, with Der Tag des Gerichts (The Day of Judgement) as the final piece. All these works were written for public performances rather than the liturgy. This is because the librettos consist of free poetic texts rather than texts from the Bible.
That is reflected in the titles of the four parts of Der Tag des Gerichts on a libretto by Christian Wilhelm Alers, a former student of Telemann. They are called Betrachtungen, meaning literally "observations". More appropriate would be "contemplations", or - as in the translation in the booklet - "reflexions". In October last year I reviewed a new recording of the same work, by the Bach Consort Leipzig, directed by Gotthold Schwarz (review). There you will find more detailed information about this work and its content. A short summary should suffice here: in the first part the Last Judgement is ridiculed by Disbelief and Mocker, who are contradicted by Reason. The next part describes the coming of Jesus which goes with natural phenomena like thunder and lightning. In the third part the Last Judgement actually takes place, and the wicked are condemned. The last part is a song of thanksgiving of the righteous.
Listening to this work one is struck by the many moments of ingenious text expression, through musical figures, the use of instruments - for instance the trumpets - and harmony. In the way Telemann portrays Unbelief and the Mocker one recognizes the opera composer who for many years was at the helm of the Oper am Gänsemarkt. There is little to choose between the two performances by Max and Schwarz respectively. The main difference is the scoring of the choruses: Max uses a chamber choir, whereas Schwarz opts for a vocal quartet, consisting of the four soloists and four ripienists. As I have explained in my review of Schwarz' recording there is reason to believe that a choir could be more appropriate here. That said, the vocal ensemble and especially the orchestra have more presence in Schwarz's recording. That is largely due to the higher volume and the closer miking. The soloists are more or less of the same standard: Schwarz and Schreckenberger are both excellent in the bass part, which is the most important of the four. David Cordier sings very well, but I slightly prefer Susanne Krumbiegel, whose voice is a little stronger and whose approach is more dramatic. Tobias Hunger is good in the tenor part, but Wilfried Jochens is hard to surpass. The rather small soprano role is appropriately sung in both recordings; Ann Monoyios is slightly better because she shows none of the insecurities of Thornhill. In the end I wouldn't like to be without either of them.
Another masterpiece is the cantata Die Donnerode; it was already very popular in Telemann's own time, as many church choirs outside Hamburg performed it. The reason for its composition was the earthquake which hit the Portuguese capital Lisbon in November 1755, and which caused a big shock throughout Europe. More than 60,000 people, about a quarter of the city's population, was killed, and the earthquake was felt as far away as Central Europe. Hamburg sent two ships with aid supplies to Lisbon, and the city council ordered an extraordinary day of penitence, fasting and prayer on Thursday 11 March 1756. On this day the first version of Telemann's cantata was performed. The text was taken from Psalms 8 and 29 in the versification of Johann Andreas Cramer. Later Telemann added a second part, again on verses by Cramer, this time after Psalm 45. The text makes no specific reference to the earthquake itself; the whole phenomenon is not even mentioned. In the first part it expresses the power of God as it manifests itself in nature: "The voice of God rocks the oceans", "The voice of God flattens the cedars", "It makes the proud mountains collapse", "He thunders, that he may be extolled". This is all reason to worship him, as the opening chorus says: "How great is Thy name, adorned with such glory, Lord, our ruler, full of wisdom and might!" This is extended in the second part in which God's power and might are praised. When Telemann added the second part, the da capo of the opening chorus at the end was moved to the end of the second part. For reasons that are not explained in the booklet the opening chorus is also still repeated at the end of the first part.
The performance is simply perfect. The soloists, the choir and the orchestra show Telemann's creative powers in their full glory. It is easy to understand how much of an impression this piece must have made and why it was received so well that other directors of music wanted to perform it too.
The last work of this set, the cantata Der Herr ist König, is much older. It was written in 1724 or earlier. It has come down to us in a copy by Johann Sebastian Bach, made between June 1724 and May 1725. At that time Bach performed several of Telemann's cantatas in Leipzig. The exact occasion on which it was performed is not known. It has been suggested that it was performed on Reformation Day, as the cantata closes with the second stanza of Luther's hymn 'Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott'. It could also have been performed on the occasion of the inauguration of the city council. The text makes various references to the kingship of God, the greatness of Christ's realm and Zion's "oath of faith" to the heavenly king. The latter option seems to me the most plausible as the cantata's content is closer to other inauguration cantatas by Bach than to his Reformation cantatas. Moreover, no inauguration cantata by Bach for the year 1724 is known. It is another very fine piece from Telemann's pen, with a lovely aria for soprano, a virtuosic tenor aria - with extended coloraturas on "prahlet" (boast) and "Pracht" (splendour) - and an evocative bass aria: "The Lord is God and none other". Hermann Max and his musicians deliver again a splendid performance, full of colour and expression.
This set is a must for every Telemann fan. If you are a Telemann skeptic, there is a good chance this set will convert you. The booklet is a bit sloppy as it includes various printing errors. The liner-notes are helpful, but unfortunately the original notes have been abridged.
Johan van Veen
This set is a must for every Telemann fan.