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]