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Georg Philipp Telemann: Cantatas, Zerschmettert die Götzen, TVWV 2:7 CD

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Sorrow is No Deeper than Contentment 27 Aug. 2009
By Giordano Bruno - Published on
Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
Joy is no less worthy of art than grief. It may be time to stop `privileging' spiritual turmoil over pleasure as a measure of profundity, though the Judeo-Christian heritage of our art and music has esteemed penitence over confidence and anguish over exuberance. I suggest that readers keep this little aesthetic credo of mine in mind when they consider my judgments of music.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was a confident composer, far more plausible at portraying certainty than doubt, or exhiliration than serenity, in his music. Charm was his forte; sensual enjoyment and audience satisfaction were always his goals, even in his most pious religious compositions. If it's a darker affect that you require, you'll be more satisfied with Zelenka or Bach, but don't confound emotional affect with purely musical inventiveness and complexity. As a musical technician, Telemann was second to none in his era. Whether his immense facility was a blessing or a curse will have to be decided the listener, with the power of purchase.

Telemann was minutely selective about texts for his vocal works. He cultivated the literati of Hamburg and greater Germany assiduously, in particular the poet FG Klopstock, the only German poet of that era whose reputation remains intact. Telemann was also meticulous in aligning his vocal melodies with the natural rhythms and inflections of his texts. Bach often treated his solo voices as instruments on a par with the violins and flutes, whereas Telemann consistently distinguished the voice from the frequently ornate obbligato instrumental lines that grace and `comment' upon his songlike vocal lines. If you can understand spoken German, you will be able to follow the words of a Telemann recitativo or aria without a printed libretto; I for one am rarely able to do that with Bach unless I already know the text. In this way, Telemann can be perceived as a progressive composer, a harbinger of Mozart and of the Romatic Lieder composers.

The three cantatas on this CD by the Accademia Daniel are prime examples of Telemann's emotional disposition, of his attentiveness to the expectations of his audience, and of his commitment to appropriate expression of his texts.

"Zerschmettert die Götzen" (Smash the Idols) was written in 1751, when Telemann was 70 years old, for the consecration of a new church in the minor city of Nienstedten, near Hamburg. The anonymous text refers quite specifically to that occasion, and it's probable that the cantata was performed only once, in conjunction with a sermon and liturgy. Two singers - soprano and bass - and perhaps a dozen instrumentalists from the Hamburg theater orchestras traveled to Nienstedten for the performance, far fewer than would have served at a consecration of a lerge city church. Nevertheless, the music is grand and festive, a result Telemann achieved through his effective use of trumpets, tympani, and oboe. It begins with a rousing aria for basso, describing the jubilation of the people at the destruction of false gods. Portions of this aria recur between later recitativos, establishing a broad unity to the cantata. The duet recitativo of the second track is a lovely example of Telemann's gift for making language musical and music eloquent. Throughout the first `Act' of the cantata, which probably preceded the sermon, both text and music are celebrations of confident faith and bold rejections of blood sacrifice and idol-worship. The second `Abteilung', perhaps sung during communion, is a five-and-a-half minute masterpiece, surely as fine as any, a bass/soprano duet that is structuarlly really a contrapuntal trio, with the oboe providing the third flamboyant voice. The text is a prayer for stability in future times. The third division is all gusto, all self congratulation and civic pride - a recitativo announcing the firmness of the congregation's faith; an aria acclaiming God, music, and the locale, in that order; and a chorale of joy. The congregation of Nienstadten paid a handsome commission for this music, but I'm certain they felt they got their money's worth.

The second cantata -- Der geliebte und verlorne Jesus (The Beloved and Lost Jesus) -- dates from Telemann's youth in Frankfurt, possibly before 1716. It's a solo cantata for soprano, oboe, two violins and continuo, a composition of modest scale probably intended for performance during communion. The text, in German, is of the `mystical love' genre, modeled on the Songs of Solomon. It's rich in "Sehnsucht", a German word that means "longing" but has far more sensuous connotations. Telemann's music is a marvel of delicacy and amorous dreaminess.

The third cantata -- Deine Schade ist verzweifelt böse (Your Offense is truly evil) -- uses a text that depicts a dialogue between Jesus and the Soul. Jesus, a basso, denounces the Soul's incurable wound of sin in a aria that's more somber than any other track on this CD. The Soul, a soprano, replies with a doleful plea for relief. Telemann pulls an innovative trick in this aria, in that the 'melodic theme' sung by Jesus in the first aria becomes an instrumental counterpoint to the soprano Soul's vocal expression. Mercy is quick; Jesus replies with a promise that faith and remorse will be sufficient to insure his aid. The subsequent arias and the gently triumphant final duet are a musical exposition of the central Lutheran doctrine of salvation by faith alone. In every detail, the music is craftily supportive of the poetry; at the same time, that music utterly transcends its literal theology and expresses universal emotions of scorn, humility, resolution, and consolation.

Soprano Dorothee Mields sings her wide-ranging arias with passion and assurance; she has a clear, soul-like voice, and she wields it fluently. Basso Klaus Mertens, a `regular' on so many recordings of Baroque music, has never sounded better. He sings these texts with as much attention to expressivity as Telemann expected from the muiscal settings. The Academia Daniel, conducted by Shalev Ad-El, is of course an `original instrument' ensemble founded by Israeli musicians, although this performance took place as part of a festival in Magdeburg, Germany. Their playing is accurate and supple throughout. This is a superb recording, at least to my taste, and a very fine choice for becoming familiar with Telemann's brilliance.
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