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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767)
Christmas Cantatas III
Was für ein jauchzendes Gedränge, TWV 1:1509 (Advent Sunday) [17:15]
Eilt zu, ruft laut, ihr längst verlangten Boten, TWV 1:415 (Advent Sunday) [16:46]
Verirrter Sünder, kehrt, ach, kehret um, TWV 1:1469 (Second Day of Christmas) [14:41]
Da die Zeit erfüllet war, TWV 1:154 (Second Day of Christmas) [20:12]
Hanna Herfurtner (soprano), Carola Gunther (alto), Mirko Ludwig (tenor), Fabian Strotmann (tenor), Peter Kooij (bass)
Kölner Akademie/Michael Alexander Willens
rec. Immanuelskirche, Wuppertal, Germany, 15-17 July 2020. DDD.
Texts and translations included
CPO 555396-2 [69:04]

Slightly confusingly, Telemann’s vast output includes works described as Christmas Cantatas and Christmas Oratorios: this is the third CPO recording of the cantatas – the earlier releases are on 999515-2 and 555166-2 – review, while the CPO recordings of the oratorios are on 999419-2 and 555254-2. To add to the confusion, some dealers list Christmas Oratorios II as ‘Christmas Cantatas III’. CPO also have an earlier recording of Telemann’s Advent Cantatas (777955-2 – review).

Misled by that attribution, last December I incorrectly reviewed the four short Christmas Oratorios on 555254-2, three of them from Telemann’s 1730/31 season, works only recently rediscovered, as Cantatas III, in a recording by the Kölner Akademie and Michael Willens with Monika Mauch, Nicole Pieper, Georg Poplutz, Klaus Mertens, Raimonds Spogis, Manfred Buhl and Joel Urch – Winter 2019-20/1. The music, performances and recording remain just as delectable whatever the correct title.

Strictly speaking, only two of the cantatas included on the new recording are for Christmas; the first two are for Advent Sunday, the other two for the second day of Christmas, 26 December. Like the oratorio recording, all four seem to be world premieres, a reminder that so much of Telemann’s music still awaits a first recording. The last thing that I would wish to seem to suggest is that quantity indicates poor quality; it’s little wonder that the good folk of Leipzig had their eyes on Telemann for their vacant kantor-ship, with some feeling short-changed by the then less-proven JS Bach.

It’s no reflection on Bach that I’m always pleased to see new Telemann material being recorded, or the music of Johann Christoph Graupner, the other candidate who was preferred to JSB, and whose compositions are only slowly being rediscovered. CPO have been helping Graupner’s cause, too: their fourth recording of his passion cantatas was released earlier this year (555348-2).

Michael Willens and the Kölner Akademie are among the mainstays of the CPO label. Stuart Sillitoe’s only complaint about their recent recording of Easter cantatas by Agricola and Homilius was that it had been released too late for the Easter season. He recommended readers not to wait for next Easter to enjoy it (555332-2 – review). They are also the artists in Telemann’s St Luke Passion (777754-2) Christmas Oratorios II (above), the 2019 release of his Michaelis-Oratorium (555214-2 – ‘an important addition to the discography’ – review) and the Advent Cantatas (above). I’m sorry to say that I seem to have missed some of these; I’ll try to catch up in a Retrospective. If you want to do your own catching-up, the Naxos Music Library is a good place to start.

I’ve already made it clear that Christmas Oratorios II is well worth having. If you want, or can afford just one Telemann Christmas recording, should it be that or the new Cantatas III? The soloists may be different, but equally fine; if anything, Peter Kooij on the new CD just has the edge over the bass voices on the oratorio recording. Willens and the Akademie are equally attentive to the music on both, and the recording, though CD or CD-quality only – I couldn’t find a 24-bit equivalent of this or, indeed, any download when I checked – is good, in CPO’s best manner. The booklet, too, in both cases, is well up to CPO’s high standards.

In Lutheran tradition, not all the music here is exultant. The two Advent Sunday cantatas, like Bach’s better-known Wachet auf! – actually composed for the Sunday before Advent, Trinity XXVII – exhort the Christian to prepare for the coming birth of Christ, generally in positive tones. TWV1:509 bids us to join the joyful expectant throng; the gospel reading for the day celebrates Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. TWV1:415 calls for the long-awaited messengers to cry aloud the glad news. But Advent is also a time for contrition, second only to Lent, so two sections of TWV1:1509 exhort us to bid good night to sin – ‘repentance must clear the rough and sandy path with earnestness and devotion through the floods (literally ‘crowds’) of its tears’.

The second day of Christmas, 26 December, commemorates St Stephen, traditionally regarded as the first Christian martyr, so it’s not surprising that 1:1469 speaks the language of repentance, bidding errant sinners to turn back and fall at the feet of the wrathful God, or see their house fall into ashes and horror, not a thought that many modern listeners are likely to entertain on Boxing Day, but maybe more appropriate than usual to a Christmas in the midst of a pandemic.

I imagine that most listeners will not pay too much attention to the words, but Telemann’s music always does. The short opening sinfonia of this cantata is subdued, but Willens never allows it to become doleful, nor does the alto, Carola Gunther, overdo the threat of falling into dust and ashes. Though this seems unlikely to become my favourite Telemann choral work, it contains some attractive music and, while I would single out the soprano – Hanna Herfurtner, whom I don’t recall coming across before – and her duet with the alto, Du rufest, mein Jesu (track 21), for special praise, all the soloists acquit themselves very well.

The tenor, Mirko Ludwig, has the hard task of kicking off the programme with the opening aria of 1:509 – there’s no sinfonia; after a short lead-in we go straight to the aria, followed by a chorale which may sound familiar. It’s one of the many uses which composers of the period found for the tune which we associate with Bach’s O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden. You may recognise some other Lutheran chorales.  The other soloist, Peter Kooj, is the best known; his light bass voice is just right for the aria bidding sins to stay away from the path of the King (track 4).

The other cantata for 26 December is altogether what we might expect, texts and music sounding more seasonal, with prominent clarini (high trumpets). Telemann had a large instrumental group at his disposal, so the seventeen fielded by Willens are not excessive; he even brings the trumpets into the final chorale celebrating Christ’s victory over the ‘ancient dragon’ – in fact, there’s a good deal of Eastertide imagery here and in the Advent cantatas.

I can’t imagine these cantatas receiving a better recording any time soon, if ever – but that applies equally to the CPO recording of Christmas oratorios. If you can afford only one of these CDs this year, put a marker on the other for 2021.

Brian Wilson

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