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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767): Six Overtures for harpsichord

[I] "Scherzando - VI Ouverturen nebst zween Folgesätzen"
Anke Dennert, harpsichord
rec: May 4 - 6, 2015, Hamburg, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe
Genuin - GEN 16411 (© 2016) (64'09")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

[II] "Six Overtures"
Gaku Nakagawa, harpsichord
rec: July 15 - 16, 2017, Würzburg (D), Musikhochschule
Naxos - 8.573819 (© 2018) (64'20")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ouverture I in g minor (TWV 32,5); Ouverture II in A (TWV 32,6); Ouverture III in F (TWV 32,7); Ouverture IV in e minor (TWV 32,8); Ouverture V in E flat (TWV 32,9); Ouverture VI in b minor (TWV 32,10)


Georg Philipp Telemann is one of the most frequently-recorded composers of the baroque era right now. His chamber music was always pretty well-known, and some of his orchestral works are also regularly played. In recent times performers show an increasing interest in his vocal oeuvre. However, his keyboard works are probably the lest-known part of his output. They are hardly ever included in keyboard recitals, and the number of recordings is also limited. The six overtures which are the subject of the present disc, have fared relatively well. To date there are at least four recordings available, including the present one, released by Naxos, and a recording by Roberto Loreggian, which is part of a set of five discs on Brilliant Classics, which includes the entire keyboard oeuvre, except the 36 fantasias.

For most of his career Telemann published his music himself. The last edition he took care of was the collection of sonatas which came from the press in 1739/40 under the title of Essercizii Musici. The six overtures were published by Balthasar Schmid in Nuremberg in 1745. He was an experienced printer of keyboard music; shortly before he had published Bach's Goldberg Variations.

The title of the edition indicates what we can expect, in translation: "Six Ouvertures, with two following movements, each in French, Polish or otherwise playful, and Italian manner, composed for Clavier by Telemann." This is not very different from the orchestral overtures or suites, which are also a mixture of French and Italian influences, embedded in the German contrapuntal tradition, and with frequent forays to traditional music, especially from Poland. However, these overtures are not simply the keyboard counterparts of the orchestral suites. For a start, Telemann treats the form of the overture a little differently. The opening movement is always called ouverture, but sometimes Telemann derives from its conventional structure. In the Ouverture V, he entirely omits the typical dotted rhythms in the slow sections. And in the Ouverture II the slow section which opens the piece is not repeated after the second fast section.

Whereas in the orchestral suites the ouverture is followed by a series of dances and character pieces, here we get only two movements with Italian titles. Through the choice of tempo - slow, fast - these Overtures receive the structure of an Italian concerto rather than a French suite. The titles of the second movements include the word scherzando, which in Telemann's oeuvre usually refers to influences of (Polish) folk music. The exception is the Ouverture VI, whose second movement is called Pastorelle. It includes a four-bar bourdon, typical of Polish music, but also a reference to the Arcadian world, which was so much the ideal of the aristocracy in Telemann's time, as the many chamber cantatas by in particular Italian composers show.

The last movements are purely Italian in style. Several of them comprise sections of a contrasting character, such as the one in the Ouverture IV: allegro - piacevole - allegro. This is one of the closing movements which has the character of a concerto, comparable with Bach's Italian Concerto. Another example is the closing movement of the Ouverture II.

Listening to these six overtures one immediately recognizes the ease with which Telemann mixes the various influences of the contemporary musical styles. In this respect these pieces are vintage Telemann. There is really no reason to ignore them, and it is surprising that they receive relatively little attention from the main harpsichordists of our time. It is probably the ideal stuff for a debut recording, as the one by the young Japanese player Gaku Nakagawa. In 2014 he won an international competition for early music in Japan at the age of 21, without having ever having harpsichord lessons. Since 2016 he studies with Glen Wilson in Würzburg. He is clearly a gifted performer, and there is much to enjoy here. However, I prefer the recording by Anke Dennert, which has some features I miss in Nakagawa's performance. Her style of playing is more relaxed and playful, and this way does more justice to the title of this set. Nakagawa is often too rigid and a bit unimaginative. In Dennert's performance I note more differentiation in tempo and character, also through the alternate use of the two manuals, within movements.

Dennert also has the advantage of a superior instrument, built by Christian Zell in 1728 and preserved in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg. This is undoubtedly the kind of instrument Telemann knew himself. There is nothing wrong with Nakagawa's instrument, though; unfortunately it is not specified. The Naxos disc comes at budget price, and if you purchase it you certainly won't regret it. It wil be interesting to see how Gaku Nakagawa will develop in the course of time.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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