Telemann: St Matthew Passion 1746 TWV 5:31. Collegium vocale Siegen, La Stravaganza Köln, Ulrich Stötzel. Hänssler Classic CD 98.960 (1994) and reissue

Telemann: St Matthew Passion 1746, TWV 5:31. Collegium vocale des Bach-Chores Siegen, La Stravaganza Köln, Ulrich Stötzel. Hänssler Classic CD 98.960 (1994) barcode 4010276005759

Soloists: Barbara Schlick, Claudia Schubert, Wilfried Jochens, Stefan Dörr, Achim Ruck, Hans-Georg Wimmer

 

Compiled in Hänssler Classic 8 CD PH17015 (2017) 881488170146:

 

Recorded 2-5 February 1994 in the Kirche Wenscht, Siegen

 

A “parlar cantando” Passion
10 June 2024

So: Bach wrote five passions, of which only two are extant (there have been attempts at reconstructing the St Mark’s Passion, and the St. Luke’s Passion, once published as a Bach work, is now considered spurious. For more, see Wikipedia’s article on Bach’s Passions – link will open a new tab). Telemann? His catalog – in which the Passions and Passion-Oratorios make up Chapter 5– lists 52 (including 25 that are now lost), starting chronologically with the 1716 Brockes Passion and ending with the 1767 St. Mark’s Passion (see the excellent Wikipedia entry on Telemann’s Passions). Although some of them – including this 1746 Matthew-Passion, TWV 5:31 (Hänssler doesn’t give the catalog number – why?) – have enjoyed a number of recordings, they remain rare on disc, and even more in comparison to the zillion of recordings afforded to Bach’s two masterpieces.

I’ve contented, in my review of other choral works of Telemann, that this relative scarcity was not so much a result of lesser quality – on the contrary, I’ve waxed enthusiastic in many reviews and wondered why Telemann wasn’t considered equal to the “Holly Trinity” of Baroque Music, Bach-Handel-Vivaldi – as of Telemann’s sheer abundance. With so many works (including some 1,700 cantatas, compared to Bach’s “measly” remaining circa 200), where do you even start exploring?

That said as a general principle, I’m somewhat disappointed in Telemann’s 1746 St Matthew Passion.

Don’t expect the huge, massive choral forces of Bach’s Passions – the choral introduction here is a short and very traditional chorale, typical of Telemann’s cantatas, and there are other such “church chorales” throughout the work. Other than those, Telemann’s choruses, in comparison to Bach’s, sound unassuming and meek. Even when some of them show flights of fancy, I get the feeling that something is wanting, as when the Disciples get in a rage at the mob of priests and soldiers that have come to Gethsemene to take hold of Jesus (CD1 Track 11), on the word “Aufruhr” (revolt), prodded on by scurrying strings: the passage is nice, but still a far cry from Bach’s St John’s opening chorus – and, at 0:48, it’s very short, too.

Even the “mob” choruses, on CD 2 (Tracks 1, 3, 9, 11, 13, 15) lack heft, power, “unruliness” – even when, again, they display fine touches of theatrical imagination, as in tracks 11 and 13, when, asked repeatedly by Pilatus, the mob repeats their shouts “crucify him”, but the second time at a faster tempo, and more excitedly. But Telemann’s mob doesn’t sound that it numbers more than the 12 disciples – and I’m sure the Sieden Choir wasn’t reinforced when singing the mob. And anyway, those choruses, disciples and mob, are but short interuptions in the recitatives.

And here lies the main rub. The liner notes, citing a letter by the composer, rightly point out that, stylistically, Telemann’s Passion is a mixture of the Italianate style (in the Arias) and of the French recitative style, in which the music is closely modeled on the free and flexible rhythm of spoken language. Of course the annotator tries to twist that French inspiration as a positive – as Telemannn did in his letter to fellow composer Carl Heinrich Graun. I’m not convinced.

Telemann’s Passion is a story told, like a form of sprechgesang theatre, more than “music”. The Passion is a litany of long recitatives and short ariosos in “parlar cantando” declamation, harking back to Monteverdi’s concept of opera, if not to Ancient Greek tragedies.

The few arioso moments within the recitatives sometimes afford fine moments in word setting, as the agitated and scurrying strings when Jesus announces to his disciples that soon the shepherd will be struck “and the sheep of the flock will scatter away” (CD 1 track 2 at 0:36). But, as in the choruses, these moments are short, and you are back to recitative. Other than these fleeting and rare moments, Telemann is not particularly daring or imaginative in his word setting of the recits.

The Passion offers its share of Arias – eight in all  – that are as fine as any written by Telemann, for soprano, alto and tenor (but none for bass). There’s another nice “theatrical” touch, in Peter’s Aria (CD 1 track 5) in which he blusters that he won’t recoil and reneg Jesus even in the face of death, “nein, nein!”, but the dacapo part is delayed after a recitativo phrase by the Evangelist (“and the disciples said the same”) and a choral outburst by the joining Disciples. As encountered in other Telemann cantatas and oratorios, a number of those Arias are adorned by obligato solo instruments that add engrossing touches of color. There’s an affecting “slumber Aria” with flutes and alto (CD 1 track 9), two soprano arias with horn (CD 1 track 13 and CD 2-23), alto with recorder (track 15), and CD 2-17 features alto with, playing by ear, oboe d’amore – and for the sake of me I cannot recognize the husky wind instrument (or combination of wind instruments?) playing along the tenor on CD 2-21.

Still, the Passion gived me the feeling that the Arias, making up less than half the work in timing, are drowned in the abundance of recits. It is telling that the last aria should be followed by still almost ten minutes of recits and chorales before the end, for a very anti-climactic ending.

TT 78:40 – it could have fitted on a single CD. Informative liner notes, texts and translations provided – a major reason to favor the original release over the 8-CD compilation from 2017, which comes without hardly any liner notes, and no texts – you won’t know what you are listening to, which will make the recitatives even more boring.

Main competition for this recording would be the recording by Hermann Max on Capriccio  10 854 from 1999, barcode 4006408108542, which I’ve just ordered. I need to compare Stötzel to Max to assess if the lack of power in the choruses that I’ve complained about, are a matter of Telemann’s writing, or Stötzel’s conducting. His two female soloists, Barbara Schlick and Claudia Schubert, are outstanding, the men are usually serviceable.

There’s another one, from 1984, conducted by Wolfgang Seeliger but reissued to CD by Christophorus only in 1994, CHR 77149 barcode 4010072771490 and reissued in 2008, CHR 0141-2 barcode 4010072014122, which I’ll probably skip.

 

Comments are welcome