In 2005 the Norwegian baroque ensemble Bergen Barokk started a project to record the complete collection which Telemann published under the title of Harmonischer Gottesdienst
. It was printed in 1725/26 and includes 72 cantatas for the various Sundays and feast days of the ecclesiastical year. Telemann's music was very popular, and that explains why, unusually,these cantatas were printed. Most cantatas of the time circulated in manuscript and directors of music exchanged liturgical compositions.
They were not written for ecclesiastical use although Telemann indicated that they could be used for this purpose. They were first and foremost for personal use, at home or in small social gatherings. This is the reason why the composer gives much freedom to the performer in regard to scoring. The vocal part is for a high (soprano/tenor) or a middle voice (mezzo-soprano/baritone). There is just one part for a treble instrument. Although Telemann indicates which instrument to use - transverse flute, recorder, oboe or violin - they can be chosen according to what is available. He even gives some instructions on how to perform the cantatas with instruments alone.
The basic structure is rather simple: two arias divided by a recitative but he regularly deviates from this structure. Some cantatas begin with a short recitative, for instance. That is not the case in the cantatas on this disc but they do contain some other peculiarities. Ihr, Völker, hört
begins with an aria, but not a conventional one. The flute opens the proceedings, and then suddenly the voice breaks in with a recitativic passage. After another passage for the flute the real aria begins. In the recitative Telemann comes up with another surprise: whereas the recitatives in these cantatas are with basso continuo only, this one includes an accompanied passage, in which the flute vividly illustrates the text: "For just look all around you! What is stirring? What roars in the sea?"
The recitative in Erscheine, Gott, in deinem Tempel
is also notable. After five lines the singer and the flute repeat the A-part of the opening aria, without the instrumental introduction. Then the recitative continues. In most cases the treble instrument and the voice have different material. That is not the case in the opening aria of Was ist mir doch das Rühmen nütze
. The flute begins by imitating the voice part which is to come later - what in musicology is called Vorimitation
(translated by New Grove
as 'prior imitation'), which was often used in organ chorales. When the voice joins in they move in parallel throughout the aria. Towards the end the recitative turns into a short arioso. In the closing aria Vorimitation
is used again.
In some of his cantatas Telemann indicates senza Cembalo
meaning that the keyboard should be silent. That is the case in the opening aria of Wandelt in der Liebe
. In fact, in the whole A part the flute and the voice are only supported by the string bass. The unfigured bass line indicates that Telemann expected a bass string instrument to be involved. It is rather strange that the organ keeps silent only for about half this part. There is another remarkable feature in this cantata. Telemann indicates the participation of violini
; the use of plural suggests the participation of at least two. Only here and there has he notated their part which goes parallel with the flute. Apparently the violinists are expected to know how to fill in the gaps. As these cantatas were scored for one instrument it is reasonable to assume that these parts are ad libitum
, although that is not indicated. In the closing aria the organ sometimes plays the parts of the violini
. This aria also includes various indications of piano
which are not fully observed in this performance.
Weg mit Sodoms gift'gen Früchten
is notable for a lack of indication which instrument should play the treble part. The B-part of the closing aria has an unfigured bass, which means that the keyboard should be silent again.
The authors of the cantata texts are not always known; the six on this disc were written by Matthäus Arnold Wilckens, a lawyer and literary man who was still very young when these cantatas were published. The texts are often connected to the readings of the Sunday or feast day for which the cantatas were written. They include many references to biblical passages and biblical images which were familiar to the faithful of the time. Moreover they are full of the kind of symbolism which was then common, with clear influences from protestant Pietism. These are not that easy to grasp for modern listeners; the booklet is helpful in explaining at least some elements of the texts, but there are many more.
As I have often written in reviews of vocal music by Telemann he was a master in translating texts into music. In these six cantatas you will find many specimens of his skills in this department.
"Telemann's preface states that the recitatives should not be sung in even measure but that the tempo should follow the contents of the poetry, sometimes slow and faster on other occasions", the liner-notes say. That is practised in these performances, but not enough. The recitatives are not speech-like enough, and that also goes for the arias. Franz Vitzthum should have taken more breathing spaces, and should have emphasized specific words and phrases through dynamic accents. Cantatas such as these are a kind of musical sermon, and more of the then common rhetoric - certainly used by the preachers - should have been adopted. Vitzthum sings well and has a beautiful voice, but in the end the result is rather one-dimensional and a bit too bland.
I haven't heard the previous volumes in this project so I can't tell whether the performances on this disc are representative. There is however every reason to be thankful even if this disc doesn't deliver the ideal.
Johan van Veen
Every reason to be thankful for this project even if this disc doesn't deliver the ideal.