Telemann: Hamburgische Kapitänsmusik, 1755 TWV 15:20. La Stagione Frankfurt, Michael Schneider. 2 CPO 999 211-2 (1999)

Telemann: Hamburgische Kapitänsmusik, 1755, TWV 15:20. Mechthild Bach, Mechthild Georg, Susanne Lena Norin, Gerd Türk, Michael Schopper, Raimund Nolte, Silke Stopf, Jacob Winter, La Stagione Frankfurt, Michael Schneider. 2 CPO 999 211-2 (1999) barcode 761203921126


Recorded 11 March 1993 in the Church Unser Lieber Frauen, Bremen

This is as good as any oratorio or cantata written by Bach or Haendel
Originally posted on, 19 February 2008

So, the Bach Cantatas and Passions, or the Haendel operas and oratorios get zillions of recordings (and performances), and Telemann is lucky when his get one or two. To me the great mystery is why Telemann’s music is so relatively neglected (the article on Wikipedia aptly points that the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica didn’t event have an entry for him). On the basis of the present compositions and other vocal and choral works that I have in my collection, I don’t hear that his vocal and choral music is strikingly inferior to that of the Leipzig cantor or the “Caro Sassone”. Granted, the title of this one, “Hamburgische Kapitänsmusik”, doesn’t seem very inviting – you expect to hear solemn, interminable and boring occasional music in honor of who knows which captain of Hamburg. Well, not at all.

According to the very informative liner notes, the “Laudable College of Citizen Captains” was a civic guard and an influential and highly respected society in Hamburg, where from 1721 on Telemann was something like General Music Director. For the first time in 1723 they called upon the composer to provide a piece of festive music for their annual banquet. Telemann composed thirty-six such pieces in the course of the next forty-three years, but most of them are lost. Each commission consisted of an Oratorio performed before the beginning of the extended banquet at midday, and a Serenata concluding the proceedings in the evening. The one we get here is from 1755.

The texts? Both compositions follow the customary model of recitative and solo aria, with introductory and conclusive Coro. In the Oratorio “Danket dem Herrn” (Thank the lord), the recits deal with the necessity for wealthy Hamburg never to forget that all these riches are bestowed by the Lord Almighty and to ever thank Him for them. And the arias go on, praising and thanking and worshiping the Lord. Except for the city of Hamburg and the German language, this is a sermon you could hear in many a Church in the United States today. The Serenata’s text is even more far-fetched. If, as I did, you associate a Serenata with two nymphs wooing a shepherd, you are wide off the mark. In this one, various “characters” (in both senses of the word: Prudentius the wise, Agenor the fighter, Solipsus the pious pacifist, Commodianus the lazy and vain idler, Brosius the simpleton…), debate about the desirability for wealthy Hamburg in a time of peace to maintain a military service or instead, to use a contemporary language, to reap the dividends of peace (again quite topical in the years after the fall of the Berlin wall – the recording was made in 1993). In the end the argument doesn’t really have a winner (although the characters do praise the worthy Captains who do so much for the City’s defense), but the liner notes aptly remind that the Seven Year war erupted a year after the composition of the Serenata, ultimately resulting in the City’s ruin. Still, as interesting and original as it is to encounter such a blunt piece of propaganda-in-music, it is not exactly what you’d assume is a good subject for good music!

But the words don’t really matter (although the Serenata’s recitative includes hilarious dialogue). In the Oratorio it is all very repetitive, and in both they could be singing anything, it is the music that counts. And it is marvelous.

In the Oratorio it is lively, playful, rhythmically dynamic and at times even dramatic (as in track 3) and orchestrated with wonderful colors: sweet recorders in the introductory chorus, lively flutes in 5 and 9, bassoon in 11, oboes in 15 and 18. The diversity of solo voices (soprano, two altos, tenor, two basses – they too impersonate different “characters”: the Humble, the Thankful, the Hopeful, the Cheerful Onlooker, the Pious…) also provides great variety.

It the Oratorio is as good as it gets, the Serenata… is even better. To all the traits of the Oratorio it adds an irresistible festive and joyous atmosphere, and it has at least three numbers that rise above the simply fine. Agenor’s Aria (track 5) is a superb specimen of “war music” with timpani, horns, trumpets and oboes. Commodianus’ Aria (track 17) complaining about the deafening beat of pounding drums gives Telemann an occasion to write another splendid military music, with more than a pinch of caricature. But the most extraordinary is Eucopus’ Aria describing “the twaddling of cackling geese, the croaking of loquacious frogs, and all the chattering of loud claptraps” (track 19). In the 18th Century I can think only of Rameau who wrote such evocative and daring orchestral music. The Serenata has many other felicities, among which I’ll mention track 9 – another fine semi-mocking heroic music, and track 11 whose vocal line has a virtuoso passage very reminiscent of Bartolo’s “come un garbuglio” in Mozart’s Nozze.

So let me praise and thank not the Lord but Michael Schneider and cpo for bringing this and all their other wonderful Telemann back to us (another very useful label for Telemann by the way has been Capriccio, and another very active and thanks-deserving performer, Hermann Max conducting the Rheinische Kantorei). One can find, perhaps, that bass Michael Schopper has a little too much vibrato, that bass Raimund Nolte is congested and short of delivery and that tenor Gerd Türk is a bit frail – but these are trivial matters. There is no competition and this is overall very well-sung and performed, and again as good as any Telemann, as good as anything composed in that style in the 18th Century, and that includes the zillion cantatas by Bach and Haendel Oratorios.

Great liner notes, with even a reproduction of a telling engraving of a Banquet of the Hamburg Captains in 1719.

Comments are welcome