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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767): Concertos & Overtures

[I] "Viola Concertos, Overtures, Fantasias"
Antoine Tamestit, violaa
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlinc
Dir: Bernhard Forck
rec: July 2020, Berlin, Teldex Studio
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902342 (© 2022) (68'28")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Canonic sonata in d minor (TWV 40,121)ab; Concerto for viola, strings and bc in G (TWV 51,G9)ac; Concerto for two violas, strings and bc in G (TWV 52,G3)abc; Fantasia for violin [viola] in B flat (transp. to E flat) (TWV 40,14)a; Fantasia for violin [viola] in G (transp. to C) (TWV 40,15)a; Ouverture burlesque in B flat (TWV 55,B8)c; Overture in g minor 'La Changeante' (TWV 55,g2)c

Bernhard Forck, Kerstin Erben, Julita Forck, Gudrun Engelhardt, Juliette Beauchamp, Dörte Wetzel, Erik Dorset, Irina Granovskaya, Uta Peters, violin; Sabine Fehlandt (solob), Clemens-Maria Nuszbaumer, Stephan Sieben, viola; Jan Freiheit, Barbara Kernig, cello; Walter Rumer, double bass; Sam Chapman, theorbo; Raphael Alpermann, harpsichord; Michael Metzler, percussion

[II] "Suites & Concerto"
Altberg Ensemble
Dir: Peter Van Heyghen
rec: July 15 - 18, 2021, Warsaw, Concert Hall 'Nowa Miodowa'
Dux - 1761 (© 2022) (69'19")
Liner-notes: E/F/PL
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto Polonois in G (TWV 43,G7); Overture in D (TWV 55,D18); Overture in D (TWV 55,D23); Overture in a minor (TWV 55,a4)

Katarzyna Czubek, Agnieszka Mazur, recorder; Magdalena Pilch, Ewa Gubiec, transverse flute; Jan Hutek, Patrycja Lesnik-Hutek, oboe; Kamila Marcinowska-Prasad, bassoon; Dominika Stencel, horn; Ostap Popovych, Pawel Hulisz, trumpet; Pawel Miczka, Juliusz Zurawski, Kacper Szpot, Joanna Greziak, Katarzyna Cendlak, Katarzyna Szewczyk, violin; Magdalena Agatowicz, Katarzyna Rymuza, viola; Jakub Kosciukiewicz, Anna Cierpisz, cello; Tomasz Iwanek, double bass; Ewa Mrowca, Kris Verhelst, harpsichord; Pawel Szewczyk, timpani


If one delves into the oeuvre of Georg Philipp Telemann, there is little chance that one won't find some unconventional stuff. The two discs under review here attest to that. The first focuses on the viola in his oeuvre, and that hardly promises to be an adventure. However, the viola played a rather marginal role in the baroque era. It would be given a more prominent place in the orchestra and in chamber music in the next phases of music history: the time of the Bach sons and the classical period.

During most of the baroque period, the viola was mainly used to fill in the harmony. It was even often entirely omitted: in Italy composers wrote concertos for four violins and basso continuo, without a part for viola. The main composers of the Italian Baroque, such as Vivaldi, Geminiani and Albinoni, did not write any solo concerto for the viola, and even in concertos for multiple instruments it seldom made its appearance. In Germany the viola played a more important role: in the 17th century quite a number of pieces for instrumental ensemble included parts for one or more violas. The viola could also be used as an alternative to the viola da gamba.

According to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Sebastian Bach played the viola himself and very much liked it. In his 6th Brandenburg Concerto two violas take the upper parts. It was Georg Philipp Telemann who composed the first viola concerto of the baroque period. That can hardly come as a surprise, as he was always willing to break new ground and explore the possibilities of instruments and instrumental combinations. With its two expressive slow movements and its two brilliant fast movements, it is a little masterpiece. Given the fact that so little music from the baroque era for the viola is available, it has been recorded a number of times, but it seems unlikely that it has been performed as well as here by Antoine Tamestit and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. One of its members, Sabine Fehlandt, joins Tamestit in the Concerto in G for two violas. It takes a little over six minutes, but it is remarkable what Telemann brings to the table in this tiny work.

These two pieces are all that Telemann has written for the viola. The other works that Tamestit has recorded are either intended for another instrument or for instruments at the discretion of the performers. The two Fantasias are specimens of the former category. Telemann composed four sets of fantasias for transverse flute, violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord respectively. They are examples of the goûts réunis, of which Telemann was one of the main exponents. The two fantasias included here were originally written for the violin, and are transposed here to make them suitable for the viola. They turn out to be very well suited to that instrument. An idea for other viola players?

The Sonata in d minor is part of a set of 18 canonic sonatas, which Telemann published under a French title in Paris during his stay there in 1718. The canon was an important compositional technique which was frequently used in the renaissance period. It was one of the hallmarks of the Franco-Flemish school. Telemann also made use of it, for instance in his Sonata in C (TWV 42,C2) for recorder, treble viol and basso continuo. Here he suggests flutes, violins or bass viols, but that does not exclude a performance on two violas, also taking into account that the viola and the viola da gamba were sometimes treated as alternatives. I can't remember ever having heard one of these pieces. If they have never been recorded complete, that is a gap in the Telemann discography that needs to be filled.

Telemann was one of the main composers of overtures or orchestral suites. This was a popular genre, which had its roots in France, but, as Reinhard Goebel once observed, French composers would probably not have recognized overtures by German composers as French. They also include other influences, such as that of the Italian style - some overtures have solo parts for one or several instruments - and of traditional music, in particular from Poland and Moravia. The common scoring of overtures was for two oboes, bassoon, strings and basso continuo, but Telemann would not be Telemann, if he did not break away from the convention. The two overtures recorded by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin are for strings and basso continuo alone. What makes them stand out is that both are pieces of a descriptive nature, something Telemann seems to have liked very much. In some of his overtures he portrays the peoples of Europe, and one of this most famous overtures refers to Hamburg (Hamburger Ebb' und Fluth). The Overture in B flat is called ouverture burlesque, and in this work he depicts several characters from the world of the commedia dell'arte. That results in marked contrasts between the various dances of this work. The same is the case in the Overture in g minor, which has the title of La Changeante. The notable feature of this work is that each dance is written in a different key, and here we find again a reference to the various European countries, as the dances are from France, England and Italy. Interestingly, the opening of the seventh movement, 'avec douceur', is identical with the opening of the aria 'Where're you walk' from Handel's Semele.

The playing of these overtures is excellent, and the differences between the movements come off very well. The theatrical aspects of the Ouverture burlesque are perfectly realized. Unfortunately, the performers have taken the bad decision to add percussion, which Telemann does not require. It is the challenge to the interpreters to realize the effects Telemann required, with strings alone. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin is good enough to meet that challenge without making use of such gimmicks.

The second disc focuses on this part of Telemann's oeuvre: it includes three overtures, which attest to the composer's creativity in exploring this genre. The scorings of all three works are different from the standard. The Overture in D (TWV 55,D18) includes two parts for trumpets, to which in the baroque period usually timpani were added, as is the case here. The other overture in the same key, TWV 55,D23, is very different, as it is scored for two transverse flutes, bassoon, strings and basso continuo. The Overture in a minor does not derive very far from the standard, as it includes two parts for oboe and one for bassoon. However, Telemann added two parts for recorders, which lends it a very particular character.

Earlier in this review I referred to an observation by Reinhard Goebel concerning the French character of the overtures by German composers. The three overtures recorded here include some marked French elements. The third movement of the overture D18 is a gavotte en rondeau, a form which was very popular in France at the time. It is followed by a passacaille, which appeared in numerous French works, either orchestral or chamber music, and which was also a fixed part of any opera. The sixth movement is called Les Postillons - depicted by the trumpets - and the closing movement is called Fanfare. The other Overture in D also closes with a Fanfare, and in this work the marked French elements are the fourth movement, called Plainte - another kind of piece often included in French opera -, and again a passacaille.

The Overture in a minor includes a polonaise, one of many tokens of the influence of Polish traditional music in Telemann's oeuvre. The choice of one of his 'Polish concertos' is then a logical one, also because the orchestra is Polish. It is scored for strings and basso continuo; the third movement is marked as largo, but is in fact another polonaise. In other movements Polish folk music can also be noted.

I had not heard of the Altberg Ensemble; this may well be its first recording. I like it a lot; the playing is outstanding, and the contributions of the trumpets - some of the hardest instruments to play - is impressive. Under the baton of Peter Van Heyghen, they have produced a disc that shows Telemann at his most creative and entertaining. It is a most welcome addition to the Telemann discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Antoine Tamestit
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Altberg Ensemble

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