05 March 2014

CD REVIEW: Georg Philipp Telemann – MIRIWAYS (M. Volpert, U. Hofbauer, J. Martin de Theil, G. Hierdeis, S. Zenkl, I. Aldrian, S. Drexl, I. Werger; cpo 777 752-2)

Georg Philipp Telemann - MIRIWAYS (cpo 777 752-2)

GEORG PHILIPP TELEMANN (1681 – 1767): Miriways, TVWV 21:24—M. Volpert (Miriways und Der Geist des verstorbenen Schah Abbas des Ersten), U. Hofbauer (Sophi), J. Martin du Theil (Bemira), G. Hierdeis (Nisibis), S. Zenkl (Murzah), I. Aldrian (Samischa), S. Drexl (Zemir), I. Werger (Ein Gesandter und Scandor); L’Orfeo Barockorchester; Michi Gaigg [Recorded ‘live’ during performances in Theater Magdeburg, Magdeburg, Germany, in conjunction with the Magdeburger Telemann-Festtage, on 11, 16, and 17 March 2012; cpo 777 752-2; 2CD, 146:41; Available from jpc, Amazon (UK), and major music retailers]

​As elusive as the inspirations for any other prejudices are those that inexplicably inflict obscurity upon the music of some composers. In many cases, the inquisitive listener searches in vain for logical explanations of why one composer's creations clutter the shelves of sleepy libraries while those of another composer unaccountably enjoy prominence in the active repertoire. In the particular case of Georg Philipp Telemann, the circumstances are even more confounding: universally respected by the most discriminating of his contemporaries, he and his compositions were given perfunctory mentions in the annals of Baroque music and subsequently tucked away somewhere between Buxtehude and Keiser. Though a few pieces such as the G-Major Viola Concerto—the earliest known example of its kind—and the oft-recorded 1733 Tafelmusik have endured, the widespread esteem for Telemann has not. Even the layman recognizes the names of Bach and Händel, but Telemann—his music was decidedly inferior, surely. In truth, the Magdeburg-born Telemann was at least as innovative as either Bach or Händel, and they knew it: both composers recognized Telemann as an equal, and Bach even selected Telemann as the godfather of his namesake, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach. Musically, Telemann was a master of all of the forms that are now associated with other composers. During the 18th Century, his operas and oratorios were as highly-regarded as Händel’s, his Cantatas and Passions were as respected and far more widely-known than Bach’s, and his concerti for a wide array of instruments were as esteemed as those of Corelli and Vivaldi. That works as significant as Bach’s Passions were consigned to oblivion for nearly a century reveals much about the maddeningly mercurial nature of music, but no excuses can be made for musicologists who, in modern times, dismissed Telemann as a second-rate composer without so much as a glance at any of his scores. Redressing such wrongs is invariably a slow process, but progress has been made in the restoration of Telemann to the reputation his music merits. Documenting a 2012 production by the Magdeburger Telemann-Festtage in sound that offers the best attributes of recording operas in performance with none of the pitfalls, cpo’s recording of Telemann’s 1728 opera Miriways contributes fetchingly to the reevaluation of a composer still waiting for the glory of his future to parallel that of his past.

Premièred at Hamburg’s Oper am Gänzemarkt, a rare public theatre in which operas were frequently performed in the vernacular for the benefit its diverse audience, Miriways is an Italian opera in every way except the language of its libretto. Adapted by respected scholar and educator Johann Samuel Müller from contemporary biographies and press reports, the opera’s text was atypical for dealing with what, in 1728, were current events. Ironically, the subject matter—concerned with power struggles in early-18th-Century Persia instigated by the Pashtun chieftain Mirwais Khan Hotaki (known in Arabic as میرویس خان ہوتکی), who extended his rule from his native Kandahar to encompass much of Afghanistan and Persia—remains bizarrely timely, and it is refreshing to encounter depictions of characters from this corner of the world that are free from caricatures and stereotypes. Though 21st-Century scholarship has concluded that most of the events in the opera actually involved the title character’s son, Telemann and his librettist were unusually faithful to the accounts of developments in Persia with which they were familiar. Telemann’s manuscript score of Miriways has been lost like those of many of his operas, a number of those that had survived until the 20th Century having likely been destroyed during World War II. Fortunately, a source from the time of the opera’s première was discovered, enabling the modern ‘second coming’ of Miriways in 1992, when the opera was performed in concert in Magdeburg under the direction of Reinhard Goebel. In scoring, distribution of arias among principal and secondary characters, prevalence of da capo arias that adhere to Italian models, and overall structure, Miriways reveals a strong kinship with Händel’s operas. It is no coincidence that the young Händel’s first four operas, of which only Almira survives in complete form, were first performed at the Oper am Gänzemarkt between 1705 and 1708, at which time Telemann was resident in Leipzig. Miriways discloses an instinctual familiarity with writing for the stage alongside an obvious talent for assimilating elements of Italian, French, and Germanic trends into an unique style. Telemann’s idiom is rendered beautifully by the playing of L’Orfeo Barockorchester. All of the musicians play superbly, but special mention must be made of the poised, unerringly accurate playing of the transverse flutes by Andreas Sommer and Lisa Keaton-Sommer, of the oboe, oboe d’amore, and recorder by Carin van Heerden and Philipp Wagner, and of the corni da caccia—precursors of the modern French horn—by Olivier Picon and Sebastian Fischer. The lively percussion provided by Rogério Gonçalves is also thoroughly enjoyable, and the continuo of harpsichordist Anne Marie Dragosits and lutenist Simon Linné gives momentum to secco recitative—of which there is less, at least in this performance, than in many Baroque operas—and to the opera as a whole. Having approached conducting from the perspective afforded by extensive experience as a Baroque violinst, Michi Gaigg possesses an insightful talent for examining the structures of scenes and making judgments about how best to realize them in performance. The tempi that she adopts are respectful of both the music and the singers’ abilities to execute it, and the elasticity of her conducting does not prevent her from applying a firm hand to passages in which the singers might be inclined to lose focus. The importance of conducting in Baroque operas is often downplayed, but Maestra Gaigg’s informed leadership is a vital component of the success of this performance.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Telemann gave opportunities for musical display to every character in Miriways, and some of the most engaging singing in this performance is done by singers in secondary rôles. In the part of an envoy from the deposed Shah, tenor Ilja Werger is a lively presence in recitative, but the singer’s only aria is Samischa’s servant Scandor’s ‘Seid lustig, ihr Brüder,’ a delightfully boisterous drinking song, sung with consummate musicality and high spirits by Mr. Werger, that makes Scandor a cousin of Mozart’s Monostatos. The duplicitous Persian prince Zemir has four arias, all of which are sung with flair by mezzo-soprano Susanne Drexl. The romantic ‘Ja, ja, es muss mir glücken’ receives a charmingly off-hand performance, and the poise that Ms. Drexl lavishes on ‘Die Dankbarkeit wird dich verpflichten’ is beguiling. Different sides of Zemir’s character are shown in ‘Unwürd’ger, deine Liebeskerze’ and ‘Kann’s möglich sein,’ and Ms. Drexl differentiates her approach according to the emotional nuances of each aria, divulging the character’s true nature in musical portraiture. A few notes at the top of her range sound slightly uncomfortable, but Ms. Drexl’s excellent technique is equal to the challenges she faces. Murzah, a Tartar prince who is the brother of Miriways’s wife Samischa, is introduced in a dramatically forceful scene culminating in the superb aria ‘Angenehme Westenwinde,’ sung by baritone Stefan Zenkl with ardor and focused tone. ‘Edle Sinnen,’ a comely number, is gracefully sung, and Mr. Zenkl’s singing of ‘Wenn du kannst, so heiß mich lügen’ crackles with indignation. In Murzah’s ‘aria à 2’ with Nisibis, ‘Welch süßes Ergötzen,’ Mr. Zenkl blends his voice with that of his partner attractively. That partner is soprano Gabriele Hierdeis, whose singing as Nisibis, a Persian lady seeking asylum at Isfahan who—in fine operatic fashion—is pursued by two suitors, is one of the principal joys of this recording. Her first aria is the delectable ‘Komm, sanfter Schalf! Komm, süßer Schlummer,’ sung by Ms. Hierdeis with an air of seduction, and the vocal freedom that she brings to ‘Mein widriges Geschicke’ is aptly communicative of the spirit of the aria. The troubling uncertainty of her situation, her affections torn between the man she truly loves and one whose feigned sincerity and nobility make rejecting him seem too cruel, is heard in Ms. Hierdeis’s singing of ‘Sein edles Herz und sein bescheid’nes Wesen.’ Zemir’s deceptions unraveled, Ms. Hierdeis joins Mr. Zenkl in a touching account of their ‘aria à 2.’ Finally united as has seemed their fate throughout the opera, all is right with their world, just as all has been right with Ms. Hierdeis’s singing. The single audible misstep in the production is the decision to play the scene in which Murzah rescues Nisibis from the burning garden pavilion for comedy, choosing to have the choral exclamations of ‘Feuer! Feuer! Helfet, rettet’ screamed and wailed rather than sung. Distractingly, the sputtering, smoke-induced coughs of the singers elicit laughter from the audience. The purport of Telemann’s music makes it clear that this is not what the composer intended, and this bout of silliness robs a scene that could be as charged as the tableau of the burning Capitol in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito of its potential.

Samischa, Miriways’s clandestine consort, sings the opera’s first aria, ‘Könnt’ ich nur zu ihm noch sprechen,’ and with the heartfelt simplicity of her delivery of the aria mezzo-soprano Ida Aldrian launches the performance with earnestness. Emotional honesty is also at the heart of Ms. Aldrian’s singing of ‘Lass dir sein ehrerbietig’s Flehen,’ one of Telemann’s most concise expressions of dignified sentiment. The piercing ache of her forced separation from Miriways tinges Ms. Aldrian’s tone with sorrow, but she avoids monotony. Vocally, the trials of her part take a toll on her tonal security, but even the most fallible moments in her performance enhance her portrayal of this long-suffering woman. Bemira, the daughter from whom she has also been estranged by circumstance, is loved by Sophi, the son of the Shah whose power Miriways has assumed, here sung with flamboyance by soprano Ulrike Hofbauer. Had Miriways been composed for Venice or London, Sophi would undoubtedly have been sung by a castrato, but a distinction of the Oper am Gänsemarkt, which Telemann managed at the time of the first performance of Miriways, is that the popularity of castrati elsewhere in Europe never gained a foothold in Hamburg. The rôle gives Ms. Hofbauer a showcase for her talents, and she puts on a rousing show. In Sophi’s first aria, ‘Die Liebe spricht,’ she zestfully imparts the impossibility of the choice between love and loyalty, but the resolution of ‘Viel lieber zu erblassen’ lures her into singing of particular radiance. The protestation of unchanging loyalty in ‘Nenn ein Herz duch unbeglücket’ is voiced with disillusionment and wounded pride, made the more potent by the purity of the vocal line. ‘Ich will mit verscheuchten Rehen,’ in which Sophi resolves to abandon hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity, is one of the moments in Baroque opera when reticence recedes and candid emotions erupt from the surface, and Ms. Hofbauer seizes this moment with dramatic intensity. The stylishness of Ms. Hofbauer’s singing is compromised only by a single over-ambitious cadenza. Technically, there are a few coloratura passages that are not completely congenial for her, but her musical integrity carries the day. The object of Sophi’s affections, Bemira, faces the predicament of loving a man whose destiny seems to mark him for power but the arms of another woman. Under this misconception, she pledges her love but accepts that she and Sophi must be parted in ‘Ich liebe dich mit zartem Triebe,’ to which soprano Julie Martin du Theil devotes unflagging concentration and glistening tone. Bemira’s only other aria, ‘Zwar diese, die du wirst umfassen,’ is also a piece in which she sacrifices her love in order to prevent her betrothed’s happiness being jeopardized by rejection of his duty. Here, too, Ms. du Theil sings handsomely.

Singing both the title rôle and the ghost of Shah Abbas I, who appears in an engrossing accompagnato scene in which he relates to Sophi that the throne of Persia is to be his, baritone Markus Volpert is an appropriately towering presence from his first entrance at the beginning of the opera. In Miriways’s first aria, ‘Ein dopp’ler Kranz soll deine Scheitel schmücken,’ he combines regal authority with burgeoning ego. Then, in ‘Es erzittre der Wütrich, der Schaum der Barberen,’ Mr. Volpert gives Miriways’s pride a strong-toned expansiveness worthy of Boris Godunov or Giulio Cesare. ‘Verjage die Wolken der ängstlichen Schmerzen’ is lighter in mood but is sung with no less energy by Mr. Volpert. This diverges forcefully from the indignant sentiments of ‘Geh, undankbares Herze, geh, geh nur und verscherze,’ which the singer hurls in the face of Sophi with biting irony. Miriways’s heart has softened when he sings his final aria, ‘Lass, mein Sohn, ach, lass dir raten,’ in which he counsels Sophi to remember his aristocratic pedigree, and Mr. Volpert introduces a suggestion of tenderness into his delivery. Many of today’s baritones who sing Baroque rôles run into trouble both with the tessitura and the bravura demands of the music, but Telemann filled the musical landscape of Miriways with no peaks that Mr. Volpert is incapable of climbing. Negotiation of coloratura passages occasionally leads to patches of bluntness in Mr. Volpert’s tone, but his timbre largely remains rounded and attractive throughout the performance. Like his colleagues, his ornamentation of da capo arias is very modest, augmenting the overall stylistic consistency among the cast. There are a few instances of imperfect intonation, virtually inevitable in live performances, but how grand it would be if the world’s opera houses could boast today of performances in the title rôles of Guillaume Tell, Rigoletto, or Mazeppa as musically complete and dramatically virile as Mr. Volpert’s Miriways.

Mention almost any of Telemann’s operas to the casual listener, and the response is likely to be bewilderment. Who? Telemann? He composed operas? He did, indeed, and cpo’s recording of his Miriways is the sort of performance that could be played for that same casual listener and provoke him to say, ‘Who wrote this?’ A listener could be forgiven for mistaking Miriways for a mid-career opera by Händel, the German libretto notwithstanding, and this is representative of the strikingly prime quality of Telemann’s music. The opera is fortunate to have received a recording as persuasive as this one: in fact, this performance should convince many listeners—rightly—that Miriways is one of the best operas they have never heard—until now.