TELEMANN: A Companion – Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin – Harmonia Mundi 

TELEMANN: A Companion (7CDS) – Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin – Harmonia Mundi 2908781, 8 hours 39:06, (9/8/17) ****½ :

A grand survey of the prolific and many-voiced genius of the 18th century Baroque with two large scale choral works at center.

For the 350th anniversary of Telemann’s death, Harmonia Mundi has arranged a handsome bouquet of recordings from its own catalog and added a substantial book which documents the composer’s long and fruitful life, calling the whole production A Telemann Companion. The diligent musicologists of this label have set an absolute standard in their critical introductions to music, and its companion essay (with English and French translations) makes for rewarding education in music history.

It would not be easy to select a sample of a composer whose output is numbered at 6000 compositions, surpassing the combined works of Bach and Handel. Yet HM has kept the task manageable by selecting from recent releases which cover the main genres of 18th-century music: opera, sacred music, the concerto and the orchestral suite. Conspicuously missing are the solo works and the trio sonata.

Telemann’s fanatical musical inventiveness extended across the entire range of the music of his time. His various employments brought him into contact with the French court traditions, the effect of which can be heard in his stately suites. These are lighter in texture than those of his friend and contemporary, Bach. They abound in colorful horn and reed passages. It is as if Telemann found the most cheerful voice of each instrument and harnessed it to a propulsive dance energy.

The Akadamie fur Alte Musik Berlin is faultless in conveying the vivaciousness of this music through its crisp ensemble playing, sharp accents and greater dynamic range than one would normally associate with Baroque music. In the concertos for recorder, Maurice Stegner is a wonder on the tempestuous concert in C major.  A violin concerto features the elegant playing of Midori Seiler. The fact that these works could be replaced with a hundred others by the same composer should not diminish our appreciation of their consummate artistry.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of this set is the opportunity to hear the large-scale sacred work, Brockes Passion. For those of us who missed it the first go around ten years ago, this is a rare chance to hear a first-rate performance led by Rene Jacobs. This passion is based on a text by the eponymous Brockes which involves a reworking of the evangelical texts so as to make them more vivid. When it comes to a narrative of a crucifixion, I would opt for making it less vivid, but the 18th century audiences were suitably impressed and this text was preferred by composers such as Handel to the traditional Evangelical Lutheran liturgy that Bach worked with.

The first passages are sanguinary to say the least. My Germanistic lexicon, always up for a challenge, was confronted early on with Laster Eiterbeulen, “suppurating boils of vice.” The rhetorical excesses pile up with “The wild flame of hell forces the marrow and blood from my bones and veins.” In the famous scene of Peter’s treacherous disavowal of Jesus, Brockes ramps up the lament to unsurpassable drama: “ The fierce blaze of the dismal cavern of torments already kindles my seething blood; My bowels screech as if they were on glowing coals.”  Colorful German to be sure (“Mein Eingeweide kreischt auf glimmen Kohlen”) but how much of this can a modern audience take? After a while, I decided to dispense with the text and let the oboes tell the story. Luckily, Telemann’s musical genius is disinclined to depths of emotion; there is nothing in all his work that approaches the sobriety and awful power of Bach’s Agni Dei, and we don’t hold that against him.

However, do with the text of this passion-made-into-Oratorio what you wish, the music is glorious. There is so much typical instrumental color throughout. Even in this composer’s best effort to express solemnity, there is a lightness and melodic lift and a swirling variety of mood and style.

Apparently, HM wanted us fully to appreciate the range of Telemann’s vocal music, for they have included one of his many operas, Orpheus. The excellent essay in the companion notes elucidate the novelties of this production which include the reworking of the tragedy by adding a major third character, Orasia, who aids Fate in its persecution of the hapless singer. The three principals, especially, are persuasive voices in the many elaborate arias and duets. This opera bears little resemblance to its Italian antecedents and veers closer to the airs de court French style. It is remarkable that this work was recovered a mere twenty years ago. This is the best chance to hear this substantial production today.

Altogether, this tribute to Telemann can be heartily endorsed for both newcomers and feinschmeckers alike. Harmonia Mundi has already delivered the best Telemann recording of the year with its earlier per Molti Stromenti performed by this same group (HM *****) which showcases on one disc the full range of Telemann’s genius for multi instrument concertos. Now we can survey the broader landscape of his oeuvre. For those who are willing to dive into the big vocal scores, this is a supreme delight.

TrackList: 
Discs 1-2 — Orpheus
Discs 3-4 — Brockes Passion
Discs 5-7 — Ouvertures and Suites

—Fritz Balwit

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