in: Reviews

October 16, 2011

Exsultemus Does Telemann with Newton Baroque

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On October 15, early music groups Exsultemus and Newton Baroque combined to give the fourth of seven installments of Georg Philipp Telemann’s year-cycle of sacred cantatas, the Harmonischer Gottesdienst. The concert series is being held at Second Church of Newton, whose beautiful, tall spire is one of the iconic landmarks of the Newton area, seen on the south side of Interstate 90 by those passing on the highway. The concert itself was held in the intimate space of the sanctuary’s left wing, with about ten rows of chairs, as well as a few adjoining pews, filled with attendees.

The concert featured one of Telemann’s trio sonatas as well as five of the cantatas from the above-mentioned cycle. The cycle itself represents an important chapter in the history of the Protestant movement, as non-Catholic composers worked to build a repertoire of sacred music separate from the Catholic tradition. The vast majority of sacred cantatas (including those by J.S. Bach) that have entered the performance canon are based on Gospel readings, whereas the works in this collection are based on the Epistle readings. Perhaps in correspondence with this secondary place within the church service, the cantatas themselves are smaller in scale than their Gospel-based counterparts, the former most often being comprised of pair of arias surrounding a long recitative. It is also interesting to note that, since the turn of the eighteenth century, Telemann’s instrumental works have received much more attention, despite the fact that his duties as music director for various German churches (including the churches of the illustrious city of Hamburg) demanded the majority of his time and efforts. He composed more than 2000 cantatas and 46 different passion settings, in comparison to J.S. Bach’s roughly 200 surviving cantatas and three passion settings.

Sunday’s performance featured a high level of technical facility as well as a number of impressive displays of musical artistry, wrapping the audience in a supple cocoon of counterpoint. Newton Baroque director Andrus Madsen gave a brief informative introduction preceding each cantata; Madsen’s friend Peter Daniel also gave a reading of the cantata’s corresponding Epistle. The introductions were well informed (Madsen’s reference to the connection between the musical declamation of the recitatives and the art of spoken rhetoric was especially insightful), and the readings offered a foretaste of the subject of each work.

First on the program was the Trio in G Major (TWV 42:G6) for Viola da Gamba, Harpsichord, and Continuo, featuring Laura Jeppesen, Madsen, and Michael Beattie, respectively. The group performed the work with a deft and delicate touch, masterfully executing the lilting, dance-style rhythms. The tempos in the outer movements were ambitious, creating a few moments during which the ensemble felt in danger of pulling apart, although no substantial errors were to be heard.

Next was the cantata Umschlinget uns, ihr sanften Friedensbande (“Entangle us ye gentle bands of peace,” TWV 1:1426), a call for peace based on Ephesians 4:1-6. This selection featured tenor Matthew Anderson and oboist Stephen Hammer, joined by continuo players Andre O’Neil and Madsen. Anderson’s clear, focused sound offered a strong anchor around which the ensemble created an effective articulation of the reading, including a number of sharp contrasts within the text.

The following cantata was entitled Ich schaue bloss auf Gottes Guete (“I Alone Gaze at God’s Goodness,” TWV 1:859), an expression of the peacefulness of resting in God’s love based on I Corinthians 1:4-9. Mezzo-soprano Katherine Growdon served as soloist for the work with Na’ama Lion on obbligato flute; Jeppesen and Beattie comprised the continuo group. Growdon’s warm, inviting sound was complemented by her sensitivity in executing cadential figures as well as an impressive awareness in her communication of the text’s conceptual oppositions. As was the case throughout the concert, the instrumentalists provided stable, yet sensitive support.

Then we heard Es ist ein schlechter Ruhm (“It is bad for one’s reputation,” TWV 1:506), a warning against preaching one thing and doing another, based on Ephesians 4:22-32. The cantata featured tenor Charles Blandy and obbligato recorder player Heloise Degrugillier, with Jeppesen and Beattie again in the continuo group. Although all of the musicians performed this piece well, Degrugillier’s ability to balance the work’s considerable technical demands with a sensitivity to the dance-based style was especially noteworthy.

Obbligato violinist Susanna Ogata was equally impressive in the group’s next selection, Die Ehre des herrlichen Schöpfers zu melden (“To recognize the magnificent honor of the creator,” TWV 1:334), based on Ephesians 5:15-21. This work again featured mezzo-soprano Growdon, as well as continuo players O’Neil and Madsen, all of whom offered yet another engaging performance.

The program closed with Verfolgter Geist, wohin? (“Persecuted soul, whither shall I turn?” TWV 1: 1467), a call to battle against the forces of evil, based on Ephesians 5:15-21. This piece featured soprano Kristen Watson and obbligato oboist Hammer, with O’Neil and Madsen again serving as the continuo group. Watson displayed a powerful yet agile sound whose timbre at times seemed slightly more appropriate to the music of nineteen or twentieth-century opera. On this point, it should also be noted that the entire ensemble performed with a level of aggressiveness that pushed the boundaries of Baroque decorum, though this style was clearly meant to reflect the “embattled” soul described in the text.

This year’s remaining performances will be given on the first Saturdays of November and December (the 5th and the 3rd, respectively), and  on Tuesday, December 27th.   The series will continue through the end of the 2011-2012 season

Joel Schwindt is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at Brandeis University. In addition to performances as a vocalist and conductor, his writings have been published by the Baerenreiter-Verlag publishing house and the Choral Journal.

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