musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767): Fantasias for violin solo

[I] "12 Fantasias for solo violin"
Fabio Biondi, violin
rec: June 18 - 20, 2015, Nigoline di Corte Franca, Chiesa di Sant'Eufemia
Glossa - GCD 923406 (© 2016) (62'30")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[II] "12 Fantasias for solo violin"
Federico Guglielmo, violin
rec: Jan 23 - 24, 2011, Padua, Sala della Carità
Brilliant Classics - 94616 (© 2015) (71'07")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

[III] "24 Fantasies"
Peter Sheppard Skaerved, violina
rec: Nov 13 & 21, 2013, Aldbury (Hertfordshire), Church of St John the Baptist
Athene Records - ath 23203 (2 CDs) (© 2015) (69'02", 58'09")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[Fantasias for transverse flute solo, TWV 40,2-13]a Fantasia I in A (TWV 40,2) Fantasia II in a minor (TWV 40,3) Fantasia III in b minor (TWV 40,4) Fantasia IV in B flat (TWV 40,5) Fantasia V in C (TWV 40,6) Fantasia VI in d minor (TWV 40,7) Fantasia VII in D (TWV 40,8) Fantasia VIII in e minor (TWV 40,9) Fantasia IX in E (TWV 40,10) Fantasia X in f sharp minor (TWV 40,11) Fantasia XI in G (TWV 40,12) Fantasia XII in g minor (TWV 40,13)
[Fantasias for violin solo, TWV 40,14-25] Fantasia I in B flat (TWV 40,14); Fantasia II in G (TWV 40,15); Fantasia III in f minor (TWV 40,16); Fantasia IV in D (TWV 40,17); Fantasia V in A (TWV 40,18); Fantasia VI in e minor (TWV 40,19); Fantasia VII in E flat (TWV 40,20); Fantasia VIII in E (TWV 40,21); Fantasia IX in b minor (TWV 40,22); Fantasia X in D (TWV 40,23); Fantasia XI in F (TWV 40,24); Fantasa XII in a minor (TWV 40,25)

Scores Fantasias for transverse flute
Scores Fantasias for violin

Music for a melody instrument without accompaniment is rather rare, especially in the baroque era. The sonatas and partitas for violin solo and the suites for cello by Johann Sebastian Bach are by far the most famous specimens of this genre. To them one can add the Passacaglia by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber and another piece from Bach's pen: the partita for transverse flute. Georg Philipp Telemann also contributed to this genre: his twelve Fantasias for transverse flute are fairly well known and part of the standard repertoire of flautists and recorder players. In comparison the twelve fantasias for violin solo are far less often performed and recorded. From that angle it is remarkable that at about the same time three recordings were released.

The fantasias date from the 1730s and were part of a series of four collections of fantasias for different instruments which were printed between 1732 and 1735. In 1732/33 a set of twelve fantasias for the transverse flute came from the press. This was followed in 1735 by twelve fantasias for violin and for viola da gamba respectively as well as three sets of twelve fantasias each for the harpsichord. Telemann published these works himself, as he did so often. They were intended for Kenner and Liebhaber: professional and amateur performers. They had to be technically challenging enough for the former but not too difficult for the latter. Most of Telemann's instrumental music was written for these two categories and in recent years he had won much experience in composing music which was attractive to both. Especially his series of periodicals which he published in 1728 and 1729 under the title of Der getreue Music-Meister included a wide variety of pieces for different scorings. Part of that collection were a gigue for violin solo and a sonata for viola da gamba solo.

The word fantasia is not used here in the traditional manner as a piece with a strongly improvisatory character, but refers to the diversity of forms which are included here. When Telemann announced the publication he mentioned that six fantasias included fugues and six were written in the galant idiom. However, there is no strict division between the two categories: in the fantasias which include fugal movements we also find traces of the galant idiom. The number of movements varies from three to four; in two fantasias one movement has to be repeated. There is no fixed order of movements: some follow the texture of the Corellian sonata da chiesa but others have an order which was to become the standard in the mid-18th century: slow, fast, fast. Although Telemann composed most of his instrumental music with amateurs in mind, they must have been pretty skilled, because especially in the second half of the set he makes use of a variety of violin techniques which require quite some skills. If we talk about amateurs of the baroque era, we should not underestimate their technical capabilities. Most amateurs were from the higher echelons of society and learning to play an instrument was usually part of their education.

All three performers use historical instruments. Federico Guglielmo plays a copy of a violin made by G.B. Guadagnini, known as 'Rabinof', dating from 1761. Fabio Biondi uses a violin by Ferdinando Gagliano from 1767. Peter Sheppard Skaerved's recording is part of a project under the title of 'Great Violins' in which famous historical violins are played. In Telemann he plays a violin made by Andrea Amati in 1570. It is gut-strung and the pitch is a=416 Hz. The bow is a copy of a historical bow. Guglielmo's violin is tuned at a=415 Hz; the pitch in Biondi's recording is not mentioned but is about the same. Basically there is no difference here between the three performers. However, the result is quite different. One difference concerns the sound which is partly the effect of the acoustic. The miking in Skaerved's recording apparently was pretty close. One probably hears the music as the player himself hears it. This can be a bit disturbing and I personally didn't like it that much. However, considering that this music was likely intended for private entertainment this could well be the way the original performers may have heard it. In comparison Guglielmo and Biondi recorded the fantasias in spaces which seem rather large. In both recordings there is just a bit too much reverberation. I would have liked a more intimate recording.

As far as the interpretation is concerned, I prefer Guglielmo, and that makes the unsatisfying acoustic all the more disappointing. He is more differentiated in articulation, dynamics and tempi than Skaerved. The latter, in his liner-notes, refers to the "melancholy sentiment"in the Fantasia No. 3 in f minor, whose key the 18th-century theorist Schubart connects to "deep depression, funeral lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave". Those features come far better to the fore in Guglielmo's interpretation than in Skaerved's; Biondi is doing pretty well here too. Guglielmo pays more attention to the differences between good and bad notes than Skaerved and as a result the rhythmic pulse in many movements, and especially the dance movements, comes off best in his recording. Overall he takes swifter tempi in the fast movements and plays the slow movements a little slower. Because of that he creates a larger contrast between individual movements. However, like I wrote, Skaerved's performance has an intimacy which is absent in Guglielmo's recording. Those who have a special interest in historical violins will be interested in this disc anyway. And I certainly don't want to suggest that Skaerved's recording is bad, even though I often did not like the tone of the violin, whether that is due to the acoustic or to the style of playing. I am not entirely sure, though, whether this violin is still in its original condition. Could it possibly be that in the course of time this violin was modernized? Could this partly explain the difference in sound between this violin and Guglielmo's? After all, gut strings are important but only one part of an 'authentic' performance. Biondi delivers pretty good performances in several aspects which I mentioned. There are some pronounced dynamic differences between good and bad notes and rhythmically his playing is also pretty satisfying. My main problem is the overall sound he produces, not only here but in all his solo recordings, which is so different from that of most players of the baroque violin. I always have had the feeling that his style of playing is too 'modern', a bit of a compromise between period style and modern conventions. Part of that is that he uses more vibrato than most of his colleagues.

Purchasing Skaerved's recording has a plus-point in that one also gets a performance of the twelve fantasias for flute solo. I have heard some of the violin fantasias being played on the recorder but I can't remember ever having heard the flute fantasias on other instruments than the transverse flute or the recorder. I am not sure whether I want to hear them on the violin because Skaerved's performance has not convinced me that it is a suitable medium for these pieces. I had even more trouble with the sound of the violin than in the violin fantasias and that could be - apart from the acoustic - due to the fact that it doesn't quite fit them. Having listened to them I felt unsatisfied, especially in those fantasias which I know pretty well from performances on flute or recorder. But if you purchase this set you can judge for yourself. I prefer the original scoring here; quite a number of recordings on flute or recorder are available. For me this performance on the violin is little more than a curiosity.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Peter Sheppard Skaerved

CD Reviews