So höret meinen Gesang

Klopstock settings by Telemann & J. H. Rolle
Antje Rux, Susanne Langner, Tobias Hunger, Ingolf Seidel SATB, Leipziger Concert, directed by Siegfried Pank
Raumklang RK3502
Telemann: Komm Geist des Herrn, extracts from Der Messias
Rolle: David und Jonathan

There’s some cutting edge stuff here from both literary and musical aspects. In this context what is particularly extraordinary is that the radical Telemann works on the CD date from his final years, when, nearing 80, the composer was still seeking new forms of expression employing modern texts. The Whitson cantata Komm, Geist des Herrn  dates from 1759, in which year it was given in the five main churches of Hamburg. It is laid out in familiar form, with alternating da capo arias, both plain and accompanied recitative, and chorales. What was controversial was the use in the chorales not of Luther’s much-loved hymn ‘Komm, heiliger Geist’ but a parody by the young upcoming poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, a substitution that caused outrage among the more conservative of Hamburg’s ecclesiastics.

Today the doctrinal issues are of course unlikely to detain us long. More importantly the work is revealed as Telemann at his most mature and inspired. Scored for four voices with a resplendent accompaniment consisting of three trumpets, timpani and two oboes in addition to strings and continuo, the joyous opening bass aria employs full scoring, while following the first chorale a splendid extended accompagnato  for tenor relates the dramatic events of Pentecost. Here Telemann’s response to the colourful text takes full advantage of the mimetic possibilities offered. There is also a delightful soprano aria, full of grace and playful leaps, rejoicing in the bounties bestowed by God. The final numbers, a duet for alto and tenor, and a chorale admit to a mood of greater ambiguity both texturally and in brief hints of the minor mode. The performance of this irresistible work is outstanding with excellent solo work from all four soloists, who also produce fine ensemble work in the chorales.

The other Klopstock setting by Telemann is of two extracts from the epic poem Der Messias, a huge undertaking on which the poet was occupied between 1748 and 1773 and which ultimately ran to 20 cantos. In the late 1750s Telemann set extracts from three cantos, one now lost. The other two recorded here are culled from cantos 1 and 10, the first a highly subjective reflection and contemplation on the Crucifixion, the second a song of lamentation for the crucified Christ by the Old Testament singers Miriam and Deborah, a setting that would become extremely popular in the latter half of the 18th century. Der Messias  was highly controversial in its day, in part to due to its very personal sensitivities, in part for its unusual use of hexameters, a form that makes it a problem for composers to set in the customary division of recitative and aria. Telemann’s answer, following Klopstock’s own desire for greater naturalism, was to set the text as a near continuous succession of accompanied recitative and arioso divided between four soloists, the narrative broken only by an occasional short orchestral interlude. His desire to echo the qualities of Empfindsamkeit  inherent in the text led to him littering the score with expressive instructions, ‘with pathos’, ‘defiantly’, ‘magnificently’ and so forth. While both extracts are of exceptional musical interest and quality, it is not difficult to understand why ‘The Song of Miriam’ (as it became known) attained such a special place, the poetry’s pathetic lyricism and powerful rhetoric underscored by Telemann’s sensitive and vivid response. Moments such as the upsurge of orchestral violence at the promise of retribution awaiting Jerusalem are quite unforgettable. Again both singing and orchestral playing are exceptional, with Antje Rux and Susanne Langner intensely sympathetic in ‘The Song of Miriam’.

The Magdeburg organist Johann Heinrich Rolle (1716-1785) had his eye on becoming Telemann’s successor at Hamburg, but lost out to C. P. E. Bach (by one vote!). His setting of David und Jonathan  takes an episode from Klopstock’s tragedy Salamo  (1764). It consists of a dialogue between David and his slain friend Jonathan, the son of King Saul. Rolle clearly seems to have had Telemann’s Messias in his mind, setting the piece for tenor and soprano soloist in similar declamatory style. If it is less striking and imaginative than its model that says more about Telemann than it is intended as criticism of Rolle.

This is a disc of high musical quality, both as to works involved, the performances and the excellent sound. It is a pity therefore that it is marred by the lack of an English translation of the German texts, which are here of unusual interest. There is however an excellent introduction in English. It’s perhaps worth noting that the Telemann works are available in fine if slightly less persuasive versions by Ludger Rémy (cpo 777 064-2 & cpo 999 847-2), where you will get translations.

Brian Robins