Concert November 15, 2009 – First Congregational Church, Great Barrington, MA
Concerto in C-Minor, TWV 52:E1, for alto recorder, transverse flute, strings, and continuo
Kantate in D-Major, TWV 7:30, “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” for soprano, alto, tenor, bass, chorus, strings, and continuo
Hamburgische Kapitänsmusik 1730, TWV 15:5, for soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass, chorus, strings and continuo
Sabrina Manna, soprano (substituting for Julianne Baird); Martin Near, countertenor; Dan Foster, tenor; John-Arthur Miller, baritone; Steven Fasano, bass
Tricia van Oers, recorder; Rodrigo Tarraza, transverse flute; Lisa Rautenberg, Leah Gale Nelson, violins; Ann-Marie Barker Schwartz, viola; David Bakamjian, cello; Jane Hershey, violone; Douglas Freundlich, theorbo; Edward Brewer, organ, harpsichord; Jay Bradley, tamburo; Christine Gevert, harpsichord
The Crescendo Choir, Christine Gevert, conductor
G. P. Telemann has never escaped his fate of being on the longer side of compositional quantity over quality. A genius in all musical genres, Telemann produced over three thousand works for every imaginable combination of instruments and voices. While many of his works are lost, what remains has been the core of a Baroque revival since the 1960s, spurred, in part, by many amateur Baroque musicians and ensembles. One can argue that no known piece of Telemann is without charm or beauty, and is worthy of the audience’s delectation. One could also argue that Telemann never rose to the sublimity of either of two of his contemporary acquaintances: G. F. Handel and J. S. Bach. Both of these masters knew and respected Telemann: Bach chose Telemann as godfather to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel; Handel learned much from Telemann’s operas. The works presented this evening attest to Telemann’s prodigious gifts of instrumental subtlety and expressive choral writing. Most fascinating of all, however, was a performance of an occasional piece for Captains of the Hamburg Civil Militia, the Hamburische Kapitänsmusik of 1730 – a pairing of a martial Serenata with an Oratorio. Telemann, who was the music director of the five largest churches in Hamburg, wrote thirty-six sets of such Kapitänsmusik, for the annual banquet held at the Hamburg-Drillhaus. The year 1730 marked the centenary of the corps, as well as the bicentennial of the Augsburg Confession. The Serenata is a pæan of sorts to Hamburg’s civic unity and military preparedness. Such exhortations seem somewhat ironic in the course of events that plagued Hamburg that year. An anti-Semitic outbreak, largely fueled by Hamburg’s clergy, led to a miniature Kristallnacht in which one thousand citizens destroyed the shops and homes of Hamburg’s Jewish population. The honorees of Telemann’s oratorio were called to restore some order in the wake of the pogrom, which lasted three days. The libretto keenly addresses the ambivalences born of civic duty and individual moral judgment. Undoubtedly being protectors could imply subjugation, violence, or even death – all, for a common “good.” Typical of the genre of the time, the oratorio is cast as an allegorical dialogue between Joy, Sadness, Truth, Time, and Gratitude. Somehow personifying such traits could assuage the vicissitudes of enforcing civic will on one’s neighbors, friends, and family. Poet Juliet Matilla, who supplied the excellent English text translations, delivered an introductory talk, and pointed out the possibility of this Kapitänsmusik being a North American premiere. Imagine Telemann having to wait so long for a New World premiere!
The evening opened with Telemann’s popular Concerto for Recorder and Flute, a charmer if played well. The pairing of a block flute, an instrument of waning popularity with its waxing younger cousin, the transverse flute, is a tribute to Telemann’s interest in the subtle coloristic differences of these two instrumental families. The musicians that Ms. Gevert gathered are period specialists of the highest caliber. One could not have imagined a crisper or livelier performance. Dutch recorder virtuoso Tricia van Oers and Chilean Baroque flautist Rodrigo Tazzara demonstrated how the two “flutes” converge in the upper registers, and diverge in the lower. The final movement, a colorful Bauertanz, evokes the pastoral and typically French drone of hurdy-gurdies or musettes.
The early cantata, “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Leid,” bears a greater affinity to the seventeenth century than the style galant associated with the bulk of Telemann’s works. Sounding a bit more like Buxtehude or Pachelbel, the antiquity of this work, like Bach’s earliest cantatas, is refreshing in its immediacy and harmonic color. Four solo voices were featured with choir. Baroque soprano superstar Julianne Baird, whose appearance was eagerly anticipated for two key soprano parts in the evening, canceled on short notice. Filling in bravely at the last minute was Sabrina Manna, who, while struggling with the part, nonetheless demonstrated her beautiful voice. One could have wished only for another day’s preparation for a fuller appreciation of Ms. Manna’s talent. Countertenor Martin Near was, perhaps, the most impressive soloist in this cantata. Countertenors often sound “hooty” and strained in their head-voice, but nor Mr. Near. His was as pure and liquid an alto tone as I’ve heard. It was particularly evident in the duet with Ms. Manna. Throughout this work, as was the practice of the time, significant words in the text were underscored or “painted” by assorted vocalizations: leaping or plumbing intervals representing an ascent or descent; vocal melismas, however tortuous, suggest general-purpose emphasis of the libretto. Bass Steven Fasano was handed the most difficult array of such vocal encrustations, some of which were nearly unsingable. For example, the thirty-second notes highlighting “Erzähet” (“declare”) and the segmented jumps “loben” (“praise”) in the ensuing aria are nearly unmusical in their pictorial hyperbole. However, Mr. Fasano, who has a rich, deep voice, ambled well through these challenges. More melodically tame was the duet for alto and tenor. Here, with a basso quasi ostinato, colorations on “lobet” and “singet” were more ariose – the movement reminding one of the many beautiful ostinato duets in Bach’s cantata œuvre. Mr. Near was joined by tenor Dan Foster in a clean, well- articulated reading. Clarity and precision also marked the choral singing, especially in the final number – a declamatory prelude with an ensuing fugue.
Unlike this evening’s cantata’s more seventeenth-century leaning, the Hamburische
Kapitänsmusik, which dominated the program, is more mainstream Telemann. In its twenty movements, he gives us a variety of forms and Baroque styles – most of which were more instrumentally idiomatic than vocally conceived. The recitatives, which were so rich in reflecting the prevailing Zeitgeist, were the meat of the allegory. Joy, Sadness, Truth, Time, and Gratitude have their say in extolling God, the good Militia, the city council, and the Elector. The plague is over; wars won are at a price; times are uncertain; times seem to be better; laughter is good – so laugh; laughter is bad – don’t laugh; sadness edifies, sadness is useless pessimism. In a true German Idealist manner, Joy and Sadness are mediated by Truth, who recalls Ecclesiastes “To everything there is a season. . . .” Yes, there is a time for joy and a time for sadness, but the reward of honest work and duty is the only constant satisfaction in this life. In Ms. Baird’s absence. the opening soprano aria was performed instead by recorder and strings. As a recorder piece, it was a tricky substitution indeed, but Ms. Van Oers persuaded us that it is perhaps more charming without words. Verses of the chorale, “Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten,” were sung by choir and helped unify the dialogue. Some of the singers enjoyed staying very much in character: Mr. Fasano (Sadness) looked positively doleful at times; baritone John-Arthur Miller (Gratitude) was exuberant in bearing and delivery. The centerpiece of the oratorio, and perhaps the most interesting music of the work, was found in the choral fugue “Es ist Trauren besser den Lachen.” Highly chromatic, Ms. Gevert and the Crescendo choir performed it with great emotive gravitas, as the text (and affekt) suggests. But then, the hyperbolic text (“Mourning is better than laughing”) suggests the possibility of bathos instead of pathos. In any event, Ms. Gevert got expressive and precise legatos from her singers. Here, as throughout the evening, the string ensemble – instruments in eighteenth-century equipage (gut strings, baroque bows) – performed exceptionally. Special mention should be made of first violinist Lisa Rautenberg who never flagged in making beautiful music even in Telemann’s most prosaic sections.
There was something rather touching about Ms. Gevert’s efforts this evening: certainly, much of it was never heard before by the assembled, and most likely will never be heard again. The libretto, perhaps sententious and pompous, addresses hard times, and questions the blessings of existence. Perhaps the Hamburische Kapitänsmusik is nothing more than ephemera from an era that endowed us with Messiah and the St. Matthew Passion, but Ms. Gevert and Crescendo’s earnestness, musicianship, and dedication are eternalizing qualities for which we (and Telemann) should be grateful.