The emphasis on Bach has not yielded a static sense of the cantata, by any
means, but I suspect that we have tended to see its dynamic changes within the boundaries of
Bach’s career and not much beyond.
The present recording offers a compelling glimpse of the cantata in the years after Bach’s death
with three cantatas by Telemann from the late 1750s and early 1760s, works written when
Telemann was an old man in his eighties. If an old man, his style here has nevertheless moved
with the times. The cantata’s mix of recitative, aria, duet, and chorale shows a degree of
continuity with the earlier cantata, but the style, compared to the Bach cantatas, is decidedly
different. Telemann’s late cantatas feature line and phrases that are smaller-scale and more
focused on small motives; the music is less contrapuntal and arguably simpler. Those who
complained of the unnaturalness of Bach may have found in this music a more agreeable
vocabulary. And a distinctive difference, as well, is the relatively little amount that the choir is
given to do—some chorale verses and a few short movements. The orchestral and vocal lines
alike are often intricately ornamental, but it is an intricacy that graces rather than overwhelms.
The strongest link with the earlier and better known Bach works is surely the composer’s
engagement of the meaning of the text. Telemann will give melismas of delight in association
with words of joy, chromaticism and harmonic alteration for darker words and affections; he will
harness the orchestration to special sound effect, as for instance, in the use of timpani where
God’s voice thunders from Sinai; and his choral setting depicting an eerily quiet extinguishing of
the stars at the Last Judgement is highly atmospheric.
There is much to like in the performances here. Ludger Rémy reveals a fine sense of style and
his performers tend to respond in kind. The Telemann Collegium of Michaelstein plays with an
infectious buoyance and grace, and the Chamber Choir of Michaelstein, in what little they have
to do here, is nicely attuned to that buoyance, as well. Additionally, in their contrapuntal
passages, the tidiness of their articulation is a particularly welcome stylistic plus. Of the soloists,
both soprano Dorothee Mields and bass Ekkehard Abele are outstanding, with resonant sounds
that yet remain focused and flexible, and impressive execution of ornamental sections. The
soprano aria “Itzt steigt er” from Er kam, lobsingt ihm is an especially memorable chance to hear
Mields’ effortless and alluringly pure tone. Tenor Knut Schoch shares in the articulative grace
and focused sound of his colleagues, though on occasion there is a hint of force in the high range.
Alto Elisabeth Graf sings expressively, but with an unusual tone, sometimes strident, sometimes
forced, and sometimes sounding like unresonant falsetto.
That criticism aside, this is a recording that will amply gratify, both in its stylistic flair and in its
exploration of the cantata after Bach. The exploration is a journey well taken, indeed, and Rémy
and his forces prove to be congenial guides.