Sunday, October 26, 2014

Stözel and Telemann Christmas Oratorios

CPO 999-668-2 (1999)
Gottfried Heinrich Stözel: Christmas Oratorio (Cantatas 1-5)

CPO 999-735-2 (2000)
Gottfried Heinrich Stözel: Christmas Oratorio (Cantatas 6-10)
Britta Schwarz (soprano)
Henning Voss (alto)
Jan Kobow (tenor)
Klaus Mertens (bass)
Weimar Baroque Ensemble
Ludger Remy

CPO 999-419-2 (1996)
Georg Phillip Telemann: Christmas Oratorio TWV 1.797
Christmas Cantatas TWV 1.262 & 1.1334
Constanze Backes (soprano)
Mechthild Georg (alto)
Andreas Post (tenor)
Klaus Mertens (bass)
Chamber Choir of Michaelstein
Telemann Chamber Orchestra of Michaelstein
Ludger Remy

What if J.S. Bach had managed to land his dream job? Certainly, many of his great works were products of the composer's restless search for more lucrative employment, designed to impress potential patrons--but what if one of those efforts had been successful?  One wonders, would the quantity and character of his output have been different in any significant way? Would there have been more cantatas and fewer instrumental pieces, or, perhaps, a dozen more Brandenburg Concertos at the expense of the St. Matthew Passion? Would the style have been markedly different--closer to Handel, perhaps?-- simpler, reflecting popular demand, or more complex given the top notch musicians Bach might have had at his disposal in a large metropolis or wealthy principality? Or did relative obscurity during his lifetime exert its own subtle influence on the body of work we know today? It makes for an interesting thought experiment, and seems apropos to a discussion of a pair of Bach contemporaries who in their time were considerably better known and far more popular than the unsung genius of Leipzig.

At the beginning of the Twenty-first century, with the hindsight of musicological research done over decades, and an easily accessible body of excellent recordings, most rational human beings have outgrown the fanatic "Bach worship" of earlier times; the teleological delusion of "the great pinnacle of Western music" after which all must only be in decline. Nor are we foolish enough to believe (as some Nineteenth and early-Twentieth-century commentators insisted) that Bach's contemporaries were nothing more than a gaggle of musical midgets whose works only survived because the kappellmeister of the Thomaskirche condescended to borrow or arrange some of them on occasion. This marvelous series of recordings from Ludger Remy should put the final nail into the coffin of that musty old myth for good and all.

Gottfried Heinrich Stözel (1690-1749) was certainly more prolific than Bach, at least where cantatas were concerned, leaving behind more than 900. Manfred Fechner's extensive notes accompanying these two superb albums from CPO inform us that Stözel served the Dukes of Gotha-Altenberg for nearly thirty years, composing a new cantata every week. (By contrast, Bach had "recycled"--reused, redeployed-- a number of his own earlier works during his first years at Leipzig.) Stözel's Christmas Oratorio in the form of a ten-cantata cycle was first performed during the two weeks between Christmas 1736 and Epiphany 1737.

These albums offer a delightful revelation of a mostly heretofore unknown aspect of the German High Baroque. Clearly stemming from the tradition of Pachelbel and Buxtehude, Stözel's music is sophisticated yet accessible, perhaps not quite as ebulliently cosmopolitan as Handel, yet always striking a graceful balance between the "composerly" and the pleasingly popular. The music is decidedly more adventuresome and contrapuntally involved than Telemann, if seldom as sublimely affecting or introspective as Bach at his best. Texts are set with great lyrical sensitivity--the figurallehre less obviously "by the book" than it sometimes is in similar works of the period-- accompanied with colorful, intimately inspired "tone painting". Every moment is listenable, engaging and understatedly pleasurable.

Remy leads marvelous, convincing performances that reveal the music in its finest possible light-- and there does seem to be a kind of glow about it, reminiscent of some lovely chiaroscuro nativity scene. The soli ensemble is ravishing, with rich combined color, and exquisite synergy--though on their own, some of these singers aren't quite as compelling. The interesting continuo line, here realized on organ and bass, is perfectly understated while providing an ever-presently subtle foundation for the modest-sized ensemble. Stözel's imaginative orchestrations are given their due with playing of great sensitivity and self-effacing commitment.

I do take issue with CPO regarding the way these albums were packaged. Each one-disc half of the oratorio comes in a separate "double-wide" two-disc jewel case with the second slot empty. Apparently this was done to accommodate the thick documentation booklet--but it's the same booklet in both albums! So why not put the whole oratorio together in a single two-disc case? Never mind that clear-plastic jewel cases are bad for the long-term maintenance of compact discs (the denser, high-impact black-plastic cases are much to be preferred as they are less prone to crack and consequently scratch the playing surfaces); this kind of wastefulness is part of what gives CDs such a bad (albeit undeserved) reputation nowadays.  I do hope CPO will eventually re-issue this as a single two-disc album in a slimmer case, though it appears the label is moving away from physical media in favor of MP3s and cloud-based options. (More on that in a later post.)

This small annoyance aside, this marvelous recording is an achievement to be celebrated, and is highly recommended.

Also very fine are Remy's performances of Geog Phillip Telemann's 1759 Christmas Oratorio and two Christmas cantatas, products of  Telemann's old age, stemming from his duties as chief municipal composer in Hamburg. These works show Telemann to be a dedicated musical workman, even in his final years--having found a set of compositional procedures that seemed to work well for him, he was content to stay with what he knew. In retrospect, Telemann was more a naturally gifted melodist who thrived best when working in smaller instrumental forms--solo pieces, trio sonatas, quartets, and concerti. He was far less a studied or talented contrapuntalist, and could at times, seem out of his depth, especially when endeavoring large-scale works with chorus. His vocal writing is basic, if not too-overtly simple, pleasingly tuneful without a great deal of depth, lacking the kind of "essential profundity" one finds in the great cantatas and passions of Bach. Choruses based on familiar seasonal chorales are pleasant enough, but do not delve too deeply beneath the pretty surfaces. Telemann's treatment of these old, sturdy tunes sometimes reminds one of Michael Praetorius in his less inventive moments; it makes a great, heartfelt,  joyful noise, but seldom reaches the listener on a cerebral level.

The performance is, nonetheless, pleasingly entertaining and well worth a curious listener's time. Recommended.

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