Saturday, November 4, 2017

Georg Philipp Telemann: Reformations-Oratorium

The title of this disc seems to be a commercial ploy. It brings together two commemorations. Georg Philipp Telemann, the most prolific composer of the 18th century, died in 1767, 250 years ago. And 2017 is also the commemoration of the 500 years of Reformation. However, the title given to the oratorio is not from Telemann's pen. In fact, this work was not even written for a commemoration of the Reformation in Telemann's time or for the yearly Reformation Day. In the Telemann catalogue it is ranked among the compositions for political ceremonies.

Holder Friede, Heil'ger Glaube (Lovely peace, holy faith) dates from 1755 and was written for the bicentennial of the Peace of Augsburg. This was a treaty between Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and the Schmalkaldic League, signed on 25 September 1555 at the imperial city of Augsburg. It officially ended the religious struggle between the two groups and made the legal division of Christendom permanent within the Holy Roman Empire, allowing rulers to choose either Lutheranism or Roman Catholicism ("cuius regio, eius religio") as the official confession of their state (Wikipedia). The libretto was written by Johann Joachim David Zimmermann (1710-1767), a theologian and poet from Hamburg, who received part of his education from Erdmann Neumeister, known for his cantata texts which were used by, among others, Johann Sebastian Bach.

The oratorio was first performed on Sunday, 5 October 1755, in St Peter's in Hamburg. Two days later is was performed again in the auditorium of the grammar school. For that occasion it was divided into two parts. On the next two Sundays the work was performed in two of the city's main churches. The solo parts are connected to four different characters: Peace (Der Friede), Devotion (Die Andacht), Religion (Die Religion) and History (Die Geschichte). However, eight male singers are known by name as having participated in the performances. "Given that the singers all received the same fees, it is safe to assume that the four allegorical figures mentioned above were not 'personified' by one singer each, but were taken alternately by solo vocalists of the same range (...)", Reinhard Goebel states in the liner-notes. In the choruses choirboys participated, in order to give them more weight. The orchestra comprised 19 players, some of whom played several instruments. The Bayerische Kammerphilharmonie is only a little larger, but here every player only plays one instrument.

The oratorio has no overture. It opens with a duet which is followed by a sequence of arias, recitatives, choruses and a few chorales. The opening duet for Peace (soprano) and Religion (bass) is a piece in a galant idiom: "Lovely peace, holy faith, to kiss you and to know that we are finally united - how good/glorious that makes me feel." It has the form of an extended dacapo aria: ABACA. This duet sets the tone as this piece is a celebration of the marriage of peace and religion. Religion claims its rights, but Peace says: "Since I am still with you, your guardian (God) does not demand a serious fight or the trembling fulfilment of his wishes." Devotion (tenor) praises its intervention: "I feel that I have been woken up when I hear you speak, O blessed servant of the Lord!"

The second part opens with a chorus, whose text is taken from the prophet Isaiah (ch 66, vs 10): "Rejoice with Jerusalem and be happy, all of you, you who hold her dear, all who have been sad about her." History (bass) reminds the faithful of the tribulations which preceded the peace: "Before that day of rejoicing whose two-hundredth anniversary we are marking today, O Lutherans, your world was full of fear and lamentation, your field was covered with men." Religion states that its only weapon is "the sword of the spirit". The reference to the past inspires to the chorale "Zion echoes with fear and anguish". Devotion then sings a moving aria about "Zion's suffering". The last recitatives and arias then tell how Peace brought that to an end. Devotion sings God's praise: "O Zion's God, how wonderfully you have shown that your arm remains victorious after all." The oratorio ends with a chorus which quotes the chorale 'Herr Gott, dich loben wir'.

The category of compositions for political ceremonies in Telemann's oeuvre comprises 25 pieces. Unfortunately most of them have been lost; only nine are extant, among them the present oratorio. One is probably inclined to be sceptical about the quality of such occasional music. Sometimes that scepticism is justified, but in the hands of great composers even texts which may not be that brilliant can come to life. However, I feel that this piece cannot be ranked among Telemann's most inspired pieces. The opening duet is a nice specimen of the galant idiom and there is some effective text expression in the aria 'Ihr werdet gedrungen' (Religion). The most beautiful aria is the one by Devotion in the second part, 'Noch erwecket dies Erwähnen', which I have already mentioned. Another good piece is History's aria 'Vergess'ne Gefahr', with its participation of trumpets. But I also heard arias which I didn't find that interesting. Some recitatives are quite long, and those don't constitute the most interesting part of this oratorio. However, that is also due to the performance. The singers don't take enough rhythmic freedom here, although that is almost certainly the effect of Reinhard Goebel's decisions. As a result they become a bit tiresome. In a more declamatory and speech-like performance they would have been much more interesting. There are also very few impulses from the basso continuo section. I really don't understand why the bassoon almost continually participates in the basso continuo. It is also notable that the bass line is almost always held at its full lenght, in contrast to the common habit of shortening them, which results in a more differentiated and accentuated performance.

Most of the soloists are alright, but I don't find their singing very appealing. The exception is Daniel Johannsen, who gives a wonderful performance of Devotion's aria which I mentioned above. The chorales lack clear dynamic accents and a differentiation between good and bad notes. The choir seems to me a bit too large, also considering the circumstances of the performances in Telemann's time. The orchestra plays modern instruments, but in period style. They do so quite well, but period instruments are superior and more suitable to the idiom of the time.

The recording of this oratorio deserves to be welcomed. It represents a part of Telemann's oeuvre which is hardly known. Although I tend to think that this is not one of Telemann's finest works, I would like to hear it in a fully satisfying performance. Maybe that could make me change my mind about this work.

N.B. As on my site I publish only reviews of recordings on period instruments, I decided to review this disc here.

Holder Friede, Heil'ger Glaube (TWV 13,18)
Regula Mühlemann (Der Friede/Peace), soprano; Daniel Johannsen (Die Andacht/Devotion), tenor; Benjamin Appl (Die Religion/Religion), baritone; Stephan MacLeod (Die Geschichte/History), bass
Choir of Bavarian Radio; Bayerische Kammerphilharmonie/Reinhard Goebel
Recorded 1 - 4 August 2016 at Studio I of Bavarian Radio, Munich, Germany DDD
Texts and translations included
Sony - 88985373872 [60:54]

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Music of the Reformation

October 31 is Reformation Day - a tradition to commemorate the Reformation which was initiated by Martin Luther in 1517. In recent years a large number of discs have been released at the occasion of the Reformation Year 2017 - the 500th anniversary of this event which changed European history and has had a lasting influence on the development of music. One of the main features was the birth of the 'chorale', as it is generally known. Luther wanted the congregation to sing, and the best way to achieve that was the writing of sacred songs in rhymed metrical verse, either based on texts from the Bible or on free poetry. He himself set an example; some of his hymns have become world-famous. Others followed in his footsteps, and hymns in this tradition are written and set to music up until our time. In addition, many hymns from ancient times - thr 16th, 17th and 18th centuries - have found their way into hymnals across the world, mostly in translations. They have often gone through a process of transition, melodically and rhythmically. As a result they are sometimes hardly recognizable as dating from long ago.

On my site I have reviewed quite a number of discs which were released as part of the commemoration of 500 years Reformation. These mostly included music by composers from the renaissance and baroque periods, such as Michael Praetorius, Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann. I have mostly neglected discs with hymns which include settings or arrangements from the 20th and 21st centuries. They don't fit into a site with reviews of early music recordings. However, some are interesting enough to bring them to the attention of music lovers, who are interested in this kind of repertoire. Therefore I decided to review a number of sich discs here.

The probably most remarkable disc is entitled "Praise the Lord - Luther's hymns on their way into the world" [1]. It documents the influence of Luther's chorales in a programme with hymns from Germany, England and the United States. It hardly matters that the commemoration of the Reformation was not the reason for this production. The recordings took place in 2012 and 2013 in connection to the commemoration of the birth of August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), the founder of the orphanage in Halle which was also a centre of music. The orphanage served as an international networking hub for songs and songbooks. Hymns were not only sung in church - in fact, in Germany it took a while before the hymns were sung by the congregation: the first hymnals were printed for school choirs. Hymns were also an important part of domestic music making, among family and friends. Especially among Pietists the singing of hymns was very popular. The Pietists in Halle were also responsible for the translation of hymns to English and their dissemination in England and later to the New World. The House of Hanover, which occupied the English throne in the early 18th century, was an important channel for the dissemination of German hymns as their court preachers were from Germany and took their hymns with them. The programme of this disc goes from Johann Walter (1496-1570) to American spirituals. It would have been better, if the pieces in English had been sung by singers whose native language is English, even though the German singers are doing a respectable job. This is a very interesting and compelling disc which approaches the hymn repertoire from a quite original angle.

The next three discs confine themselves to German music from the 16th century to our time. The Sächsische Kammerchor, directed by Fabian Enders, sing a programme with hymns in the order of the ecclesiastical year [2]. They start with Advent and Christmas, then focus on the Lord's Prayer, sing some hymns for Passiontide and Easter and for Pentecost. They close with some hymns which are specifically associated with Lutheranism: 'Verleih uns Frieden/Gib unsern Fürsten', the funeral hymn 'Mitten wir im Leben sind' and two of Luther's own hymns: 'Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort' and 'Ein feste Burg'. Among the composers we find some old masters - Schein, Hammerschmidt, Scheidt, Schütz, Bach - and some composers of the 20th century, such as Herbert Collum, Günther Raphael and Georg Christoph Biller. Unfortunately the performers take quite some liberties in the performance of the older pieces, especially those by Bach. His chorale settings are mostly taken from cantatas, but then sung a cappella. These are mostly sung in a rather slow tempo, sometimes almost caricatural. In some pieces there are exaggerated dynamic contrasts, which sound very unnatural. As far as I can tell, the modern pieces come off best.

Peter Kopp, the conductor of the Vocal Concert Dresden, made a personal choice of hymns [3]. That was not easy, as he admits: he could have easily filled three discs with 'favourite hymns'. Here we find perfect examples of how some hymns changed considerably over the centuries, sometimes in their melody, but more often rhythmically. Whereas most of the hymns were originally intended for congregational singing, the programme also includes hymns which were written for vocal ensembles or to be sung at home, such as Gott des Himmels und der Erden. Another example is Der Mond ist aufgegangen: the text is by Matthias Claudius (1740-1815) and also was probably not intended as a church hymn. It was set by Johann Abraham Peter Schulz (1747-1800) as a song to be sung with keyboard accompaniment. It was only in the early 20th century that it was included in hymnals. It developed into a much-loved piece and has acquired the status of a folk song. The settings span some four centuries, and the performances also bear witness to the various periods in which these hymns were sung. In some cases a stanza is sung with a full-blooded organ accompaniment, as if a whole congregation is singing. That is the case with Großer Gott, wir loben dich, whereas Nun danket alle Gott (Now all we thank our God) is given in the style of the 19th century. The German chorales are part of a living tradition. That comes to the fore here through the differentiated choice of settings and various styles. Those who love such chorales should not hesitate: this is highly enjoyable recording, with first-class singing by the Dresden Vocal Concert. For those who are not familiar with this kind of repertoire it offers an excellent opportunity to broaden their horizon.

Carus has released a twofer, which includes various recordings from its archive [4]. On the second disc we find several pieces by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. They could hardly be omitted, as he was one of the relatively few composers of the 19th century, who paid much attention to the Lutheran chorale. These pieces are performed by the Kammerchor Stuttgart, directed by Frieder Bernius. Together these five pieces take 40 minutes. That is disappointing for those who have these recordings already in their collection. They are part of a complete recording of Mendelssohn's sacred choral music by Bernius. With the exception of two choral pieces all the other compositions on the second disc are chorale arrangements for organ, among them several which are very well known (Buxtehude, Bach) and are available in many recordings. They are played by Matthias Ank and are introduced by the original chorale, sung unaccompanied by Sophie Harmsen, unfortunately with a lot of vibrato. The first disc is much more interesting as far as the repertoire is concerned. It juxtaposes old settings by - among others - Scheidt, Schein, Walter, Eccard and Vulpius with modern versions from the pen of such composers as Sebastian N. Myrus (*1977), Christoph J. Drescher (*1982) and Volker Jaekel (*1965). It is quite interesting to hear how the various composers treat the material. Whether one likes the modern stuff is a matter of taste. It is not my cup of tea, but others may enjoy it. The performances by the Athesinus Consort, directed by Klaus-Martin Bresgott, are overall pretty good. This disc is definitely the most interesting of this set.

[1] "Praise the Lord: Luther's Hymns on their way through the world" Melanie Hirsch (soprano), Thomas Riede (alto), Henning Kaiser (tenor), Matthias Vieweg (bass), Stadtsingechor zu Halle, Lautten Compagney Berlin/Wolfgang Katschner Carus 83.339 details

[2] "Ein neues Lied wir heben an - Choral works on hymns by Martin Luther" Sächsischer Kammerchor/Fabian Enders Querstand VKJK 1605 details

[3] "Lob, Ehr und Preis sei Gott - The most beautiful German hymns" Vocal Concert Dresden/Peter Kopp Berlin Classics 0300553BC details; there you'll also find a more comprehensive review.

[4] "Luther's Hymns" Sophie Harmsen (mezzo-soprano), Matthias Ank (organ), Athesinus Consort Berlin/Klaus-Martin Bresgott; Kammerchor Stuttgart, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Stuttgarter Kammerorchester/Frieder Bernius Carus 83.469 (2 CDs) details