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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767)
St Mark Passion 1759
Veronika Winter (soprano), Anne Bierwirth (contralto), Georg Poplutz (tenor), Ekkehard Abele, Markus Flaig (bass)
Rheinische Kantorei, Das Kleine Konzert/Hermann Max
Recorded live 2018 at the Klosterbasilika Knechtsteden, Dormagen, Germany
Texts and translations included
CPO 555 347-2 [83:44]

When Telemann became Musikdirektor in Hamburg, it was part of his duties to compose one Passion every year, alternating the Gospel accounts of the four evangelists in fixed yearly rotations. Telemann considered composing religious music as the most important part of his activities, as he wrote in his first autobiography of 1718: "This, however, I know well, that I always have valued church music most highly, I have studied other composer's music most because of it, and I also put most work into it". Telemann started in 1722 with a Passion to the Gospel of St Matthew. Until the end of his life he composed 46 Passions, of which 22 have been preserved.

The St Mark Passion of 1759 was considered to be one of the lost Passions. Only a set of parts was known, which represented an adaptation by Telemann's grandson Georg Michael, which he performed in his capacity as Kantor in Riga. The Royal Conservatory in Brussels owns a copy of a St Mark Passion which is attributed to Johann Heinrich Rolle (1716-1785), who was Musikdirektor in Magdeburg. Recently, this work has been identified as a composition by Telemann, as it adopted many scribal idiosyncracies from his lost autograph. This made possible a live performance of this Passion at the early music festival in Dormagen in Germany, which has now been released on disc.

Several features of this work need to be mentioned. Firstly, it is an oratorio Passion, meaning that the text of the Gospel is the heart of this work. In this respect, it is comparable with other Passions by Telemann and, for instance, the two extant Passions by Johann Sebastian Bach. With them, it also shares that free poetic texts are included. These are from the pen of an unknown author. These not only have the form of arias, but also of accompanied recitatives. It is notable that they are allocated to allegorical characters rather than characters appearing in the narrative of St Mark's gospel. These are Devotion, Faith, Love, Religion (soprano), Imitation, Sinner (alto), the Christian, Wisdom (tenor), Contemplation, Courage, Loyalty, Righteousness and Zeal (bass). There is just one duet, in which the Sinner is joined by Jesus. The latter role is, according to tradition, scored for bass. It was also customary to score the role of the Evangelist for tenor, but in some of his Passions Telemann gave it to another voice type. He does so here as well: this part is scored for an alto. However, for this recording Hermann Max decided to transpose that part an octave downwards, which brings it into the range of a baritone. It is sung here by the tenor Georg Poplutz, and as a result his performance of this part is clearly different, as far as the tessitura is concerned, from the roles of the two allegorical figures scored for tenor.

In some ways, this work is in line with what was common at the time, as I wrote above. However, this St Mark Passion is different in one aspect which I already referred to: the connection between the arias and particular allegorical characters. This was a practice we know from the Passion oratorios of the time, such as the Brockes Passion and Telemann's own Seliges Erwägen. As far as the oratorio Passions by Telemann that I know are concerned, none of them includes parts of allegorical characters, except, ironically, his previous St Mark Passion, written in 1755. In this respect, one could call this piece a hybrid oratorio, which mixes the features of the two main Passion genres.

The allegorical characters take care of the accompanied recitatives and the arias. In particular the recitatives are quite dramatic. Telemann's skills in this department were praised by Christoph Daniel Ebeling (1741-1817), a German writer and translator, quoted in the booklet: "[No] one paints with more powerful strokes or is more capable of kindling the imagination (...)". A striking example is the scene, in which Judas kisses Jesus. This is told in a secco recitative by the Evangelist, and then Zeal immediately intervenes with an accompanied recitative: "Halt, traitor! Halt, traitor! Fire of heaven, vengeance, halt!"

In the arias, sometimes a character in the story is addressed, such as Caiaphas, the High Priest, after he has accused Jesus of blasphemy: "O treacherous question: What think ye? Flee, errant betrayer! Flee, Caiaphas, flee!" Most arias comment the events and then turn to a message for the congregation or the world at large. An example is the very first aria (Devotion): "There he goes, to bleed for us, there goes Jesus for our sake. Ye world of sinners, arise, awake, God threatens with rightful vengeance and with rods steeped in anger the sinner man and sinner woman." In some arias the faithful speak, such as The Christian: "O kiss, the surest sign of friendship, unsullied language of the heart, even you are desecrated by a villain. How deeply we have fallen!" This follows the scene, where Judas tells his soldiers that they should arrest the person he is going to kiss.

The dramatic character of this work manifests itself also in its structure. The anonymous librettist divided the text into a series of scenes, which generally open with secco recitatives, followed by an aria, sometimes preceded by an accompanied recitative, and closing with a chorale. This is not a fixed order, though: the second part opens with a secco recitative, which is followed by an aria; then we get a recitative, which includes a Chorus of Witnesses, and then another aria, followed by a recitative. Even so, its structure is another feature which makes this Passion stand apart from other Passions by Telemann.

One may regret the fact that Hermann Max decided to transpose down the part of the Evangelist, but with Georg Poplutz he has one of the best interpreters of such parts right now. He is a very engaged story-teller, whose rhythm follows the text rather than the bars, and he has no problem with the relatively low tessitura of his part. In his arias, he goes to the higher register of his voice, and there he is equally convincing. Markus Flaig is an excellent interpreter of the part of Jesus; his voice has the right weight and colour, and he acts with the appropriate authority. Veronika Winter is a regular in many of Hermann Max's recordings, and it is easy to understand why. She has a lovely, fluent and strong voice and sings her part with admirable ease. Anne Bierwirth is her equal, and sings her relatively small part very nicely. Only now and then she is a bit overshadowed by the orchestra. Lastly, Ekkehard Abele, who sings the bass arias. Some of them are quite dramatic, and he feels like a fish in water in such stuff. His performances considerably contribute to the dramatic power of this performance.

This recording is a major discovery and a highly important addition to the Passion repertoire. It also demonstrates once again the unique qualities of its composer. Although we know many of his vocal works by now, he still manages to surprise.

Johan van Veen

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