In Passion Season, Telemann Receives Rare Performance

Boston Baroque performed Telemann’s ‘St. Luke Passion’ at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.
(Photos by Kathy Wittman | Ball Square Films)
By Marvin J. Ward

BOSTON – We tend to worship the superbly crafted and solemn nature of Bach’s two complete surviving Passions to the exclusion of all others. His longer-lived and far more prolific contemporary Georg Philipp Telemann composed nearly 50 of them. On March 2, Boston Baroque presented an eminently satisfying account of Telemann’s St. Luke Passion (TWV 5:29). Written in 1744, it is one of his six extant settings of the St. Luke narrative.

Baritone Andrew Garland sang the role of Jesus.

The musical Passion is a descendant of the medieval Passion play, which originated as a rustic performance in front of a cathedral or church, on its parvis or square, and later moved into the sanctuary. An heir of such a play, first performed in 1634, is still offered outdoors in Oberammergau in Bavaria every decade in the zero year, but scripts of others in several languages, including English, have survived.

Telemann composed his many Passions in two formats – those intended for performance in a sacred space (more than 40, of which 22 survive), and “oratorio-passions” suitable for secular presentation. The latter brought into the work events from the Old Testament, somewhat like Handel did in Messiah.

The custom in mostly Lutheran Northern Germany (Telemann lived in Hamburg from 1721 till his death) was to circle repeatedly through the four Gospels in order in an annual Passion offering, with multiple presentations in different churches during the 10 days leading up to Easter. To the biblical narrative, delivered as recitatives, librettists added commentaries on the events, expressed through arias, mostly for soprano in this example from Telemann.

The format for the presentation of the action is the same for both the “sacred” or “oratorio” Passions: The Evangelist reciting a narrative of the events, with participants like Jesus, Peter, and others chiming in with what the gospel presents as quotes, and the chorus representing groups such as High Priests, Elders, and the crowds of ordinary people.

Choruses generally included hymns, and the audience was encouraged to sing along. Hence, the works are not the solemn distant affairs that are Bach’s two, which were composed in the 1720s; this represents an evolution both in the performance and the musical styles. As musicologist Laura Pritchard pointed out in the pre-concert lecture, this music is really more like that of Bach’s sons than like his, and of a more human sensitivity; the ideas of Leibnitz and Newton, signaling the beginning of the Enlightenment, had spread in the interim. The music not only flows with the words, but often both represents and conveys their meaning or sense.

In this presentation at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, tenor Thomas Cooley served as the Evangelist, with baritone Andrew Garland as Jesus. Other soloists included soprano Teresa Wakim and chorus members Jason Wang as Peter and Jonas Budris as Pilate. Two prominent tenor arias were sung by Stefan Reed. Martin Pearlman, Boston Baroque’s founder and music director, conducted the orchestra of 18 strings, flute (Andrea LeBlanc), and oboe/oboe d’amore (Gonzalo X. Ruiz), with continuo provided by Peter Sykes on a portative organ.

Boston Baroque music director Martin Pearlman conducted.

Performances by all were excellent, in both diction and expression as well as musically. Some numbers stood out as compositions: for example, the music for the role of Jesus frequently descends into the lowest bass, which baritone Garland handled notably well, as he did in a “rage aria,” rendered forcefully but never over the top. Wakim’s delivery of Telemann’s “fluttering leaves” aria was exquisitely lilting, and in another solo she conveyed magnificently the text’s compassionate reaction to Jesus’ last words.

Telemann did not compose an overture or sinfonia to introduce this work, so Pearlman chose to use in its stead, as was common at the time, another work by the composer: the first movement of his Concerto in G for oboe d’amore (TWV 51:G3). The program began with Buxtehude’s Dixit Dominus (BuxWV 17), a liturgical cantata for soprano and strings. It was composed in about 1690 for a Lutheran Vespers service, its text drawn from Psalm 109 and ending with the Doxology (Gloria Patri). The concert was a well-crafted, intermission-free unit.

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina, a professional journal, for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December 2009.