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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767): "Ouverture-Suites"

Neumeyer Consort
Dir: Felix Koch

rec: Sept 27 - 29, 2016, Mainz, Hochschule für Musik (Roter Saal)
Christophorus - CHR 77412 (© 2017) (73'02")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ouverture des Nations anciens et modernes in G (TWV 55,G4); Overture in G 'La Bizarre' (TWV 55,G2); Overture in g minor 'La Changeante' (TWV 55,g2); Overture in a minor (TWV 55,a2)

Kerstin Fahr, recordera, violin; Barbara Mauch-Heinke, Jochen Steyer, Monika Grabowska, Christiane Schmidt, Annika Schmitt, Liuba Petrova, violin; Anna Kaiser, Marit Bustnes, viola; Daniela Wartenberg, Christoph Lamprecht, cello; Jochen Steinmetz, double bass; Barbara Meditz, bassoon; Markus Stein, harpsichord; Pere Olivé, percussion

In the first half of the 18th century Georg Philipp Telemann was the main composer of orchestral overtures. The genre had its origin in France, and Telemann had a strong preference for the French style. It is not known exactly how many of such works he has written. There is little doubt that a considerable part of his output has been lost. Most of his overtures have come down to us thanks to his colleague Christoph Graupner, for many years Kapellmeister at the court in Darmstadt, who copied Telemann's suites for performances by his own chapel.

Telemann was a versatile and creative composer, and that also comes to the fore in his orchestral suites. The four pieces recorded by the Neumeyer Consort attest to that. Despite the similarity in scoring, they are very different in texture and each of them has something special to offer.

The programme opens with the Overture in G (TWV 55,G2), which has the nickname La Bizarre. That title is well deserved, considering its uncommon features. It consists of an overture and several then common dances, such as courante, gavotte, sarabande and a pair of menuets. However, the fourth movement is a branle, the name of a dance which was popular in the 15th and 16th centuries. This movement is also notable for the fact that the four parts all have their own time signatures: allabreve, 6/4, 2/4 and 6/8 respectively. The opening ouverture is also remarkable. It has the conventional ABA structure: the A section is in a dotted rhythm and a slow tempo, but the second violin follows its own route and plays quavers and semiquavers. The B part is a fugue in a fast tempo, but again the violin has its own thematic material and does not participate in the fugue. The sixth movement is a fantasie and this suite ends with a character piece, Rossignol. The singing of the nightingale is depicted by the first violin, playing demisemiquavers, triplets and tonal repetitions.

The second work is the Overture in g minor (TWV 55,g2), which is entitled La Changeante. This refers to the different moods depicted here, which explains why its movements are strongly contrasting in character. The ouverture is followed by a stately loure, but then we get Les Scaramouches, which refers to the commedia dell'arte. This movement consists of two contrasting sections. Then we hear a pair of menuets, followed by a playful piece called La Plaisanterie. Here the lower parts include repeated short pauses. Next come a lively hornpipe and an elegant movement with the description avec douceur. The suite closes with another lively dance, a canarie. The latter and the ouverture are the only movements in the tonic of g minor, which is rather unusual.

The Ouverture in a minor (TWV 55,a2) is one of Telemann's best-known works, in particular because it includes a solo part for the recorder, which participates in all the movements. As not that much concertante music for the recorder was written in the late baroque period, it is only too understandable that recorder players like to perform it. It is one of several suites in which Telemann includes a solo part, and in doing so he mixes the French style with the Italian. In this particular suite the Italian character finds its most marked expression in the third movement, called air à l'italien. The solo part is a kind of dacapo aria, and the repeat of the A section allows the interpreter to add some virtuosic ornamentation. Another movement in which the recorder has a virtuosic part to play, is the réjouissance. The closing polonaise attests to Telemann's interest in folk music. Early in his career he became acquainted with such music, and this had a lasting influence on his development as a composer.

Telemann has written several works in which he depicts peoples of Europe. The Ouverture des nations anciens et modernes in G (TWV 55,G4) is often confused with the so-called Völker-Ouvertüre, the Overture in B flat (TWV 55,B5). That suite includes musical portraits of, among others, Turcs, Swiss and Portuguese. However, in the suite included here Telemann confines himself to three peoples from northern Europe: the Germans, the Swedes and the Danes. After the usual ouverture we first get a pair of menuets. They are followed by three pairs of contrasting movements, devoted to one of the peoples: first the Germans, then the Swedes and lastly the Danes. We don't know for sure what is the reason behind this piece, but Sarah-Denise Fabian, in her liner-notes, comes up with some interesting explanations. The first is strictly musical, and could be connected to the Querelle des anciens et modernes, a debate in literary circles in some European countries, and especially in France in the late 17th century. "In this literary controversy, supporters of the ancient tradition opposed those who stood for contemporary innovations." The movements in Telemann's suite could reflect the various positions in this debate. The first of every pair of movements has a most marked dance character, and represents the French style. The second is more independent from dance rhythms, and represents the modern Italian style.

However, there is another explanation which has to do with politics, more precisely with the Great Nordic War (1700-1721). This was a conflict in which a coalition led by the Tsardom of Russia successfully contested the supremacy of the Swedish Empire in Northern, Central and Eastern Europe. The outcome was that Sweden lost its hegemonic power over the Baltic Sea region. The Overture was probably written in 1721 or a little earlier, and may illustrate the outcome of the war. The Swedes, who were the most powerful before the war, come first, and they are followed by the Danes, who came out strengthened. "In addition, the rate of rapid note succession increases in the movement sequence - the reminiscence of battaglia compositions thus increases and the Danes appear as the liveliest."

These two explanations don't necessarily exclude each other. There may be some truth in both of them. In any case they could also deliver an explanation of the conclusing movement, called Les vieilles femmes - the old women. It is dominated by chromatic lines, which lend this piece a lamenting character. What do these women mourn about? Maybe the war, or the loss of supremacy of Sweden, or the fact that the old French style is overshadowed by the modern Italian taste?

This piece is vintage Telemann who was brilliant in his characterisation of people and situations. I must say that I have heard more imaginative performances of this particular piece. Overall the playing is alright, and I certainly did enjoy the performances of Kerstin Fahr at the recorder. However, there is one major issue, which dissuades me from recommending this disc. In all but a few movements the performers found it necessary to add percussion. This decision is explained thus in the booklet: "As a result of the assumption that some of Telemann's overture-suites may also have been performed as a mime (at the Dresden court, for instance), Telemann's music is given a particularly plastic [sic] tonal quality by the addition of drums, bells, castanets or triangles." I wonder what historical evidence this assumption is based on. Most Overtures have been preserved in the library of the court chapel of Darmstadt. It seems especially unlikely that the Overture in a minor may have been used for pantomime. But even if music was performed in a theatrical setting, this does not necessarily imply that percussion was added. These Overtures are scored for strings and basso continuo, and to me there seems to be no reason whatsoever to add anything to that. Musically speaking I find the participation of percussion in almost any movement highly annoying. For that reason it seems unlikely that I will ever return to this disc, if only to avoid that awful percussion.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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