In the mind's eye one can imagine Georg Philipp Telemann on an eighteenth century television hawking his wares like the late American TV pitchman Billy Mays; "Now your chamber ensemble, whether in church, in court or in the home can sound like a million dollars with my Harmonischer Gottes-Dienst. It has cantatas suitable for Saint's Days, Feast Days, and every Sunday in the calendar -- even the 27th Sunday after Pentecost! Just follow the notes and you'll play pleasant music that will make all of your parishioners happy, no matter how pious they may be." Even though television didn't exist in Telemann's time, his publication of 72 cantatas, the Harmonischer Gottes-Dienst, published in 1725 or 1726, was an enormous commercial success in its day, both as a whole volume and as a source for individual cantatas sold separately. Bergen Barokk are taking on the first complete recording of this important cycle for Toccata Classics, of which this is the second installment, subtitled "The cantatas for middle voice, violin and basso continuo I." By "middle voice" they mean an alto, and here that part is supplied by countertenor Franz Vitzthum, who has a very agreeable voice and injects the text with an appropriate amount of expression without overdoing it, much as his predecessor, soprano Mona Julsrud, achieved on volume one of this series.
The cantatas in the Harmonischer Gottes-Dienst are scored for modest forces; one voice, one solo part, and continuo. While the blurb on the back cites the "vocal and instrumental virtuosity" in this music -- and agreed, Barokk plays them as though they were virtuosic -- these pieces were designed not be terribly difficult for the average early eighteenth century musician and many were playable by talented amateurs. But it is not "easy" music in the sense that Telemann was counting on his own contrapuntal variety and gift of melody to carry him through, and he had reason to be supremely confident in that regard, and there are some moments here that are downright gorgeous -- the whole of the First Sunday of Christmas cantata Erquickendes Wunder, the closing Aria of the New Year's cantata Halt ein mit deinem Wetterstrahle, and the whole of the Second Sunday after Epiphany Ist Widerwätigkeit are among individual pieces that stand out. This side of Telemann is typified by natural, flowing, idiomatic, and memorable melodic lines often supported by unusual harmonic ideas and is never boring, even though it is about as basic and stripped down as Baroque music gets.
The first volume of Toccata Classics' Harmonischer Gottes-Dienst featuring Barokk was so good that, while one welcomed the prospect of such a series, one wondered if the band could keep up this level of enthusiasm throughout the whole cycle. Well, we're at 12 cantatas down, with 60 more to go, and so far there's no flagging of inspiration in this project; bring it on!