These two discs are part of an important project: the recording of the complete collection of 72 cantatas which Telemann published in 1725/26 under the title of Harmonischer Gottes-Dienst
. So far five volumes have been released; two have been reviewed here: Volume 2
and Volume 4
, both with the German alto Franz Vitzthum as the soloist. Volume 5 was recorded in 2008 and for unknown reasons only released in 2013. As Volume 1 was also available the Webmaster suggested I include that in my review, and as a true Telemann aficionado I didn't hesitate. It gives me the opportunity to note whether any progress has been made in the interpretation of the cantatas. I am happy to report that this is indeed the case.
These cantatas were composed for use in church and at home. Telemann was a practical man and offered as many opportunities as possible. The cantatas are scored for either a high (soprano/tenor) or middle (mezzo-soprano/baritone) voice. Each includes a part for a treble instrument: recorder, transverse flute, oboe or violin. Although each time one specific instrument is indicated, there is no fundamental objection to playing the treble part on a different instrument, for instance a recorder part on the oboe. It depends on the character of the music which instrument makes a plausible choice. The composer even suggested that the cantatas can be played as instrumental pieces. Paul Goodwin has recorded four arias as such (Harmonia mundi, 1996/2006). In the basso continuo harpsichord and organ are used alternately.
The cantatas are ordered according to the time of the ecclesiastical year. This order is followed on both discs. Volume 1 begins with Lauter Wonne, lauter Freude
which is for the fourth Sunday of Advent. It is followed by cantatas for the first and fourth Sundays after Epiphany (In gering- und rauhen Schalen; Hemmet den Eifer
) and two cantatas for the last Sunday before Lent (Seele, lerne dich erkennen
) and the fourth Sunday of Lent, known as Sunday Laetare (Du bist verflucht, o Schreckensstimme
). The last cantata is for the first Sunday after Easter (Auf ehernen Mauern
Volume 5 follows the same concept: Gott will Mensch und sterblich werden
is for the feast of the Annunciation on 25 March. Next come the cantatas for the third day of Easter (Jauchzt, ihr Christen, seid vergnügt
) and for Sunday Exaudi, between Ascension Day and Pentecost (Erwachet, entreißt euch den sündlichen Träumen
). Schmückt das frohe Fest mit Maien
is for the second day of Pentecost and Die Kinder des Höchsten sind rufende Stimmen
for the feast of John the Baptist on 24 June. The disc ends with a cantata for the feast of St Michael, celebrated on 20 September.
Most of the texts were written by Matthäus Arnold Wilckens, a lawyer and literary man who was hardly twenty years old when he wrote these texts. In comparison with what was written in his time his texts are of a quite respectable quality. He usually picks up elements from the reading of the day, often making a selection from the letters of the apostles. It was a nice gesture to include these biblical passages in the booklet, preceding each cantata. The central thoughts from these readings are worked out in the two arias which embrace a recitative. The latter can be quite long: in these recordings some take about three minutes. Here Wilckens uses all kinds of biblical images and regularly refers to episodes from the Bible, especially the Old Testament. In the booklet of Volume 1 a number of these are explained in footnotes; unfortunately that is not the case in Volume 5. Such explanations are certainly helpful to those who are not that well acquainted with the Bible.
One could consider these cantatas as models of the ways a German composer from the baroque era treated a text. Telemann misses no opportunity to depict an image. Every cantata includes some examples, both in the arias and in the recitatives. The cantata for St Michael's Day (Vol. 5) is interesting in that Telemann scores it for voice, violin and bc. Music written for this occasion usually included wind instruments, especially trumpets - or cornetts in the 17th century - and percussion to depict the battle scenes associated with this celebration. In the recitative Telemann rather uses the basso continuo to illustrate the effects described in the text. In the first aria of Die Kinder des Höchsten sind rufende Stimmen
the soprano part includes trumpet figurations to depict the "calling voices" of the "children of the Almighty" "through which God's praises resound". Mona Julsrud emphasizes this by using a messa di voce
. The last aria is very different: "Purify me, o sacred coals, touch my heart and lips". Every time the soprano enters the violin and the basso continuo - here only the cello - play pizzicato.
We note another contrast between the opening and closing arias from Du bist verflucht, o Schreckensstimme
(Vol. 1). The first aria begins with the words: "You are accursed, voice of terror, you are damned, word of thunder!" It refers to the way God manifested himself to his people at Mount Sinai and gave his Law. Since Jesus has fulfilled that Law, he "has made us free". The closing aria therefore begins with the phrase: "Rejoice, blithe children of men that are free!" An example of the way Telemann illustrates a thought is the closing aria from Lauter Wonne, lauter Freude
(Vol. 1). In the preceding recitative the vanities of the pleasures of he who "does not rejoice in Christ" are exposed. The aria says: "Constant worry, eternal remorse, grief that has no end" and this thought is illustrated by continuous unsettling modulations in the parts of the recorder and the soprano.
At the start of this review I wrote that these two volumes give the opportunity to note if any progress has been made in the interpretation. That could suggest that the first volume is disappointing. That is certainly not the case. Mona Julsrud is an excellent singer whose voice is perfectly suited for this repertoire. Her articulation and diction are very good, which is a prerequisite for a performance of these cantatas. It was also a good idea to engage a language coach who not only gave instructions about the pronunciation of German but also about the differences between modern and 18th-century pronunciation. As a result the texts are very clearly audible and I have not noticed any unidiomatic vowels which are often very hard for non-German speakers. Ms Julsrud also shows a thorough understanding of the meaning of the texts and that leads to utterly convincing interpretations. In Volume 1 I was not fully satisfied with the performance of the recitatives. Rhythmically they are a bit too strict, and there are not enough accents on key words. Especially in this department Volume 5 is much better: the rhythms are treated with more freedom, and the main words in the text are effectively emphasized. This results in a truly rhetorical interpretation.
Obviously the recorder is dynamically more limited than the violin. However, in Volume 1 Frode Thorsen - who also wrote the very informative liner-notes - makes the most of his role and effectively conveys the figurations which Telemann used to depict elements in the text. Bjarte Eike plays well enough but could have created stronger dynamic contrasts in his violin parts; a somewhat sharper 'attack' now and then would not have gone amiss. The basso continuo is quite helpful in realizing a rhetorical performance, especially in the recitatives.
All in all, I am very happy with these discs which shed light on the many qualities of this compelling collection of cantatas. I am looking forward to future volumes.
Johan van Veen