in: Reviews

January 9, 2011

Beginning of Telemann’s Liturgical Year

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Many thanks to harpsichordist and organist Andrus Madsen, director of Newton Baroque, in collaboration with members of Exsultemus, for having the courage to undertake presenting all of Telemann’s cantatas for the church year at the Second Church in Newton (Congregational) from now through December 27. The first concert was this past Saturday, January 8. If you want to annotate your calendar, the remaining fifteen performances, grouped around the appropriate events during the liturgical year, are listed on a page at the Exsultemus website.

This particular set of cantatas (one of several) was Telemann’s first, entitled Harmonischer Gottesdienst, which he wrote and published in Hamburg from 1725 to 1726. If you want to have a look at the scores, Telemann’s original editions are available online individually in reproductions from the Danish Royal Library. The handsome title page is here. For a historical introduction to this project and the music, see Virginia Newes’s excellent article for BMint here.

Why did Madsen do this? “Because the music is just so terrific,” he says. Indeed it is. This listener’s immediate reaction was, “Who knew?” and apparently the same response occurred to members of the ensemble as they first read through some of these pieces, “just for fun.” That spirit stuck with them on the opening concert of the series. Part of their enthusiasm is displayed by virtue of the fact that except for the cellists, they are a “stand-up” group, and to see their bodies swaying and smiling and taking their cues from each other conveys just that enthusiasm. Oboist Graham St-Laurent sometimes had some triumphant gestures to accompany his final cadences that brought additional kudos for his fine playing, along with some nice chuckles.

But these concerts are not all fun and games by any means. Madsen has been careful to annotate the program notes showing the exact source of the Biblical text for each cantata and Biblical references for specific phrases in the cantata texts, and he even distributes a few Bibles on the seats to encourage further reading. He also intends to read either the Epistle or the Gospel for each particular Sunday; most are related to the Gospel except for the three heard on this occasion. Chairs were set up in the small wing in the left front corner of the nave, where the players also performed, rather than in the chancel. Although it looked like a confirmation class in a liturgical church, for the two or three dozen people there, it was an intimate and joyful musical experience.

The program began and ended with excerpts from instrumental works by Telemann. His “Water Overture,” or suite entitled Hamburg Ebb und Fluth (“Hamburg ebb and flow”), was written in 1723 to commemorate the centenary of the founding of the Admiralty there. We heard the first movement, a slow-fast-slow coda construction that immediately introduced us to the fine capabilities of the performers — violinists Cynthia Miller Freivogel and Marika Holmqvist, violist Joy Grimes, oboists Joyce Alper and St-Laurent, bassoonist Stephanie Corwin, and cellist Zoe Weiss. Madsen was the harpsichordist throughout, providing a masterful, rich continuo realization that included appropriate improvisation as needed. (Telemann called for an additional oboe and three flutes, but using what is available is certainly in the tradition.) The group’s intonation was perfect, and fast passagework achieved at a lilting pace. In that vein, there could have been slightly more dynamic contrast to suggest the “ebb and flow,” but after all, this was written for a stately occasion.

The first cantata, for the New Year, Halt ein mit deinem Wetterstrahle (“Cease with your tempests”), has many images of water and blood, yet celebrates Moses’s return from Mt. Sinai to the desert with the tablets. Countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf’s wide-ranging, heavy, forceful voice, lightly accompanied by Weiss and Madsen, was appropriate for this stormy work that, like the third cantata, comprises two arias with a recitative in the middle. He made full dramatic use of the melismas on words such as “Blut” (blood, as in “blood of the lamb”), but could have expressed his final consonants with the same vigor as his voice. The second aria is in a rollicking three-quarter time of rhythmic complexity, reflecting the “rivers of tumbling tears” of the text, and the instrumentalists had fun with it.

The second cantata, for the Sunday after the New Year, is more complex structurally: Aria — Recitative — Arioso — Recitative — Aria. Its first line (and title), Schmeckt und sehet unsers Gottes Freundlichkeit (“Taste and see the kindness of our God”) ushers in a small sermon on forgiveness and grace, culminating in the final aria threatening vengeance if forgiveness is not achieved. Zachary Wilder was soloist with a much lighter tenor voice, accompanied by oboist St- Laurent, and both cellist Weiss and bassoonist Stephanie Corwin playing the bass line, which proved a little overwhelming for Wilder’s lovely lyric tenor. Nevertheless Wilder shone through, mainly because of the pure focus of his voice and his fine, precise, German diction. He too was dealt a few melismas with which to play, notably the one in the first aria on “erhöhet” (“exalt”). The final aria speaks of “flaming agony,” “anger,” “whimpering,” “howling,” and “apprehension.” I hope you can imagine both the word painting in the music and Wilder’s spirited  rendering of it. By the way, the comment about Corwin’s bass line above should in no way detract from my appreciation of her fine bassoon playing — excellent clear passage work, and lovely, smooth  pianissimos when appropriate.

The third cantata, for the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the visit of the Wise Men, unusually incorporates texts from both the Old (Isaiah) and the New (Matthew) Testaments: Ihr Völker hört, wie Gott aufs Neue spricht (“Hear ye people, how God speaks”). Both text and music are joyful. Once again the form was two arias and a recitative, sung by countertenor Pagenkopf. This time Rebecca Shaw was the cellist, and traverso flutist Na’ama Lion ravishingly performed a fascinating, atypical flute obbligato during the recitative.

The final instrumental conclusion, no doubt programmed to complete the palindromic design of this concert on many levels, were the Largo and Allegro excerpts from Telemann’s popular Musique de table, Part 1, a concerto for flute, violin, and cello soloists in A major. The solo parts were performed by Lion, Holmquist, and Weiss respectively, with violinists Freivogel and Barbara Englesberg, violist Grimes, bassoonist Corwin, and Madsen. The soloists had a wonderful time soaring above their colleagues in Telemann’s playful melodies. The whole, even as a stylish excerpt, made a fitting conclusion to this edifying concert, a fine introduction to the Telemann liturgical year.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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