Telemann: Christmas Oratorios

Monika Mauch, Nicole Pieper, Georg Poplutz, Klaus Mertens SATB, Kölner Akademie directed by Michael Alexander Willens
cpo 555 254-2
TVWV 1:745, 926, 1251, 1431

The three oratorios recorded here, all recently discovered, date from 1730 or 1731 to cover a church year designated by Telemann to be devoted to oratorios. They were composed for the Hamburg churches for which he was responsible for supplying music, all having librettos by the local poet Albrecht Jacob Zell. The oratorio differed from the cantata and other forms of church music by giving the music to named characters, here allegorical figures that pronounce on various theological and philosophical topics linked to the Nativity. Much ofthe poetry will seem arcane to the modern reader, but it has themerit of providing the composer with opportunities for colourfulcontrast in addition to mimetic writing. It hardly seems necessary toadd that these are opportunities seized upon eagerly by Telemann.

The most immediately striking of these works is Schmecket und sehet, composed for the 1st Day of Christmas, not least because it is composed for eight soloists (SSAATTBB) and features a large orchestra including trumpets and drums. Here the soloists take the parts of Love, Prayer, Faith, Hope, Joy, Reverence, Fidelity and Prudence, their parts doubled in the choruses. At its heart lie three dialogues, the first an extended da capo aria between Joy – the ever-dependable bass Klaus Mertens – and a ‘Choir of Joyful Souls’, cast in the favouriteBaroque form of questions and answers in which Telemann makes effective use of contrasting the florid passaggi for bass soloist with the terse questioning of the chorus. The last is an elaborate 8-part aria in which the two SATB groups are again starkly contrasted, the first SATB group soft legato (‘So rest gently’) dynamically contrasted with the trumpets and drums reply (‘God awakens, so I may rest!). The other notable number is for alto (Prayer), ‘Mein Herze wallet’, a delicate, flute-inflected area sensitively sung by Nicola Pieper, a real discovery among the soloists. This is a lovely, warmly-rounded voice, evenly produced across its range and Pieper’s technique is excellent, with finely articulated ornaments; the ornamentation of the da capo repeat is a model of style.

The second oratorio, Im hellen Glanz, scored for SATB and lightly orchestrated, seems to me less interesting, with the exception of the opening aria, well delivered by Georg Poplutz’s pleasing light tenor, in which Telemann imitates the ‘snow melts, running off’ with descending scalic figuration. The work seems to engage the performers less, too, conveying less conviction than elsewhere. Herr Gott, dich loben wir, for New Years’s Day, on the other hand, is an engaging piece with SATB parts for Trust (sop), Holy Longing (alt), Contemplation (ten) and Knowledge (bs), with a ‘Choir of Observing Souls’. As the names suggest, the overall mood here is more reflective. There is another question and answer dialogue between the bass and choir, the solo part accompanied by an obbligato bassoon and fine arias for tenor and alto, the former including touches of tonal ambiguity and further mimetic writing. The choruses of both this and the preceding oratorio sound to me to have been clearly intended as one-voice-per-part, the ornamental turns in the B section of thefinal aria sounding uncomfortable when doubled up, as here.

Willens does employ single voices for the final work, Und das Wort, a cantata describes here as Kirchenmusik (Church Music), a term Bach used to describe many of his church cantatas. Composed for the 3rd Day of Christmas, it is a small-scale work, scored for SAB only and a small string ensemble. Its theme is one of the central mysteries of the Nativity, St John’s ‘And the word was made flesh’, which opens a modulating contrapuntal chorus on the whole text. There are areas for only the soprano and alto, the former surprisingly Italianate, separated by a chorale based on ‘In dulci jubilo’. The repeat of the opening chorus at the end gives the cantata a satisfyinglycyclical shape.

The performances are throughout thoroughly idiomatic, with fine singing from all the soloists and tidy, accomplished orchestral playing under Willens. Listening to the CD a week before Christmas proved a highly agreeable way of embracing the true spirit of the season, but I have little doubt that it will make for rewarding listening at any time of theyear.

Brian Robins

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