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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767)
Seliges Erwägen des bittern Leydens und Sterbens Jesu Christi: Passions-Oratorium in neun Betrachtung TWV 5:2
Anna Lucia Richter (soprano), Colin Balzer (tenor), Peter Harvey (baritone), Michael Feyfar (tenor), Henk Neven (baritone)
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/Gottfried von der Goltz
rec. live by Norddeutscher Rundfunk during the Telemann Festival, Laeiszhalle, Grosser Saal, Hamburg, Germany, 1 December 2017
Libretto supplied
APARTÉ AP175 [59:15 + 53:15]

Baroque Passion music these days means mostly J.S. Bach and occasionally Handel. That is to misrepresent reality to an alarming degree. In terms of performance at the time, as the notes tell us, the present work may well have been the most played in Lutheran Germany. It exceeded by some margin the Brockes-Passion, also by Telemann, and even The Death of Jesus by Carl Heinrich Graun, popular because, amongst its qualities, it was "sentimental and tearful". Also in the running were equally emotional settings of the passion story by Keiser and Mattheson. Though it has nothing to do with the present review, I cannot pass on the story that Mattheson nearly killed Handel, his close and lifelong friend be it noted, trying to run him through with his sword during a quarrel in 1704. Only a well-placed button saved Handel, so the tale goes. Think how that would have changed the history of music!

Back to the review at hand. Keiser composed the wonderfully entitled The Bloody and Dying Jesus, a setting of a lyric poem which typically for its time, says Antony Milner, "did not so much present the story as comment on it with a wealth of blood-curdling detail and exaggerated expressions of emotion." None of the most popular religious music of this time in Lutheran Germany is performed today, except at festivals like this and on the resultant recordings. Whilst Bach wrote a mere handful of Passions, even with the lost ones counted, Telemann is credited with sixty settings, about two dozen of which exist today. He wrote, for example, one every year for his 46 years as Kantor in Hamburg. This is even more passions than he wrote operas and let us not get started on orchestral ouvertures-suites, the concertos etc. etc. As with Vivaldi, the evidence is there to hear, that the quality was consistently high. This is creativity on an industrial scale but firmly directed at satisfying his listening public who, even in church, liked a good tune.

The excellent notes with this release by the eminent journalist, musicologist and academic Gilles Cantagrel (his Wikipedia entry is an eye opener) put this remarkable Passions-Oratorium in context and they simply have to be read. I summarise: the Passion story can be told in quotes from the Bible or via creative story-telling, and philosophising about it can be separated out or mixed up with Biblical quotations. This means that composers can make the retelling as austere or as operatic as they like. Telemann's input was not only in providing the music, he also wrote the words. Coming from, as the notes put it, a family of pastors, he was well placed to meditate aloud on the gospel story. As a composer, Telemann, drawing on huge operatic experience, presents his own nine meditations very expressively but eschews any theatricality. There are few characters and no dramatic choruses. Even the great Bach adopted the latter, particularly in the St John Passion. So what we have during this wonderful two hours of lyrical and even lively music, is a mixture of arias, recitatives and simple chorales for the congregation to join in. The arias are often surprisingly upbeat and it took constant glances at the full libretto provided to check what they were singing about. Until the final meditations there is little of the gravity of Bach. Only the congregational chorales are consistently solemn. In this performance the soloists together form the congregation. The actual audience at last year's Hamburg Telemann Festival is very quiet indeed until the last note has died away, when their extremely enthusiastic applause alerts the home listener to their presence.

Throughout this masterly work Telemann makes the most imaginative use of his orchestra. The chalumeaus are heard immediately in the opening Sinfonia and they, along with pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons and horns, all have their part to play in one or more arias. In the case of the horns they add weight to the more dramatic parts towards the end. The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra are as marvellous here as they always are. The singing is amazingly good, especially considering this was live, and only once or twice did a soloist sound stressed, as well they might since they are the chorus as well as the 'characters'.

A great set which has to be added to every collection of Baroque music.

Dave Billinge

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