Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra celebrates Georg Philipp Telemann with church cantatas and concertos

Photo: Maxim Reider

“A Christmas Special”, the second concert of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 29th season was an all-Telemann concert marking 250 years of the composer’s death. This writer attended the event at the Jerusalem International YMCA on December 6th, 2017. Under the direction of JBO founder and musical director David Shemer, orchestra and soloists presented little-known works of Telemann alongside more familiar works - three church cantatas and two concertos.

In his program notes, Maestro Shemer mentioned the fact that Georg Philipp Telemann’s oeuvre comprised over 3000 works, his church cantatas alone numbering more than 1000, with the mind-blowing fact there was no “existing instrument or chamber ensemble for which Telemann did not write a work” and that “in all these he displayed complete command ...retaining his high- and uncompromising standard of composition”.  

 Subsequent to his posts in Sorau/Silesia and Eisenach, Telemann (16811767) held the position of Frankfurt’s ‘Städtischer Musikdirektor’ (i.e. the city’s musical director) for almost nine years, from 1712 to 1721. With his sacred and profane music written during these years, he laid the foundation of his international fame.  As his Frankfurt post required him to arrange church music for Sundays and holidays, he would compose sacred cantatas on a regular basis. All three cantatas performed at the JBO concert stem from this Frankfurt period. The program opened with “Weg, nichtige Freuden” (Go away, fine pleasures) the cantata’s tutti and ensuing arias forming one lilting, dance-like continuum, taken up by each singer in turn, the timbre of instrumental scoring indeed more alluring and luminous for its inclusion of  recorders (Drora Bruck, Idit Shemer).  “Kommt alle, die ihr traurig seid” (Come all ye who are sad)  from Telemann’s French Cycle, offers more variety of cantata elements - arias, recitative, chorus and a genuine chorale. Its message of comfort in times of need was well expressed by the singers, as they highlighted key words. The final tutti, with its exuberant fugal entries, ended somewhat enigmatically on the dominant chord, suggesting it would have been followed by another work or movement. For me, the highlight was Telemann’s early Frankfurt cantata “Sei getreu bis in den Tod” (Be faithful, even to the point of death) written when Telemann was still in his  twenties. Here, the composer gives us four arias for the separate voice types, the only tutti section, opening and concluding the work, sung by all four singers, guaranteeing better-than-choral ensemble singing. The effect was very intimate and just right for the meditative quality of the work, which would have been written for normal occasions of Lutheran worship rather than for festivities. Highlights were baritone Guy Pelc’s vivid word-painting and the alto aria, its text sensitively expressed by Avital Dery and joined by the violin obbligato splendidly shaped and ornamented by Noam Schuss and Hillel Sherman’s stirring and involving performance of the final aria:
'O God, grant that my soul remains true to Thee for ever,
So that when that awesome day  summons me to rise from the grave’s pit,
My eyes will be able to see thy Divine Face in the sapphire-like heavens.’
Young soprano Adaya Peled’s singing is informed and precise. Her performance of  “Contemptible world”, with its “vain pleasures”, “pain and grief” might have benefitted from  more emotional- and vocal intensity.

Telemann’s Concerto for three violins, strings and b.c. in F-major, following the Vivaldian model, comes from the second production of Telemann’s “Tafelmusik” (or “Musique de Table”) , the endorsement of Telemann’s conception of  ‘mixed taste’, in which elements of Italian, French and German musical styles come together with the influence of the street music of Poland and Silesia. In all three movements Telemann interweaves the virtuosity of the single violin with the variety of colours he conjures up from the three playing together, structurally held together by the ripieno passages for the full string section. The audience at the Jerusalem YMCA auditorium was witness to how each gesture was played out with subtlety and intelligence and handed on by violinists Noam Schuss, Dafna Ravid and Rachel Ringelstein. Theirs is the art of listening, balance and good taste, the artists’ individuality nevertheless emerging in their playing. Definitely a performance to be observed, not just heard.

If Telemann’s Concerto for flute and recorder in E-minor, the only one of its kind,  is a crowd-pleaser, there is every justification for the fact. There was a conspicuous number of recorder players in the Jerusalem audience, professional and amateur players, all probably aware of Telemann’s own proficiency on the recorder and the resulting technical challenges in his many works written for the instrument. If Johann Mattheson’s description of the scale of E-minor as “deep-thinking, grieved and sad” is accurate, Drora Bruck (recorder) and Idit Shemer’s (Baroque flute) performance of the opening Largo, with its sensibilité and elegant shaping of phrases, including some splendid ornamentation, suited the concept. The artists achieved an impressive blend of sound, engaging in the fine dialogue of the second movement (at times overshadowed by the orchestra) then presenting the fragility and intimacy of the third movement, an E-major Largo. The secret is eye contact. The ebullient and genial stomping Polish rondo dance of the last movement, with  its octave- and insistent bass notes, allowed players and audience to let their hair down, sending all home with the devil-may-care joy of the eastern European folk dance.


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