Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Telemann and the Anniversary Cult

The 2017 Telemann Year marks the 250th anniversary of the death of the composer in 1767. I've always felt a bit odd about these death anniversaries; you have to leave out the word "celebration", but there it is. It's odd that these anniversaries have become so central to promoting both live and recorded classical music. It also happens in popular music, of course, as we're currently living through the Beatles years +50.  Norman Lebrecht recently listed the major composer anniversaries of 2017, by the way; the list is here at his Slipped Disc website.

John Berger, who sadly died early this year, talks about this aspect of cultural marketing in an essay on Rodin in his book About Looking:
The anniversary cult is a means of painlessly and superficially informing a ‘cultural elite’ which for consumer-market reasons needs constantly to be enlarged. It is a way of consuming - as distinct from understanding - history.
I adore John Berger, but I'll continue paying attention to anniversaries like Telemann 250, as half-baked an anniversary it is. I realize full well that knowing when Telemann died is no substitute for a complete understanding of his music, but surely it can be a gateway to listening to perhaps unfamiliar music. Music history, even more so than art history, has a Great Man problem, and the special attention that will be paid during 2017 to the composers in the shadows - Isaac, Campion, Gade, Amy Beach, Lou Harrison - might spark some interest which could lead to future understanding.

However it occurs, I've found Telemann repays whatever attention I can manage to give considering the Elephant in the Room, J.S. Bach. The Festive Cantatas included in this new release from CPO aren't too far in quality from Bach's own cantatas. One thing is clear: the German cantata template shared by Bach and Telemann allows an impressive range of musical, theological and social concepts to be communicated. The more I listen to his music, the more I've been impressed with Telemann's expressive capabilities. There are lovely moments on this disc. I dearly love a chorale, and O Tod, wo ist dein Stachel nun is a superb bit of music, both comfortably familiar and comforting spiritually. The trumpets and drums which come with a Festive Cantata give Telemann a chance to bring the pomp of the court into the Lutheran service. But there are also outstanding movements like the Choir of Angels that begins the Cantata Er neigte den Himmel, which places Telemann in the very early expressive tradition of the German Frühromantik.

The playing and singing, choral and solo, of Hermann Max's musicians are of a consistently high level. I'm familiar with CDs by the Rhenische Kantorie and Das Kleine Konzert in German repertoire - Graun, J.C. Bach, Hasse, as well as Bach and Handel - on Brilliant Classics and CPO. I've always been impressed with their stylish and elegant presentation, but also the obvious feeling they bring to the music.

There's a second composer on the disc: C.P.E. Bach, whose own Tricentennial was back in 2014. His cantata included here shows that he was intimately familiar with the music of Telemann, as well as his father's, at the same time that he integrated new trends in orchestral music during the last third of the 18th century. As it happens, C.P.E. replaced Telemann in Hamburg when the older composer died in 1767. Which brings us back to the anniversary. Happy (?) 250th!

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