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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767): "Telemann in the French style"

The Hanoverian Ensemble

rec: Jan 11 - 13, 2008, New York, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie (Mary Anna Fox Martel Recital Hall)
MSR Classics - MS 1309 (© 2008) (68'36")

Overture in e minor (TWV 55,e1); Quartet in e minor (TWV 43,e4); Trio in e minor (TWV 42,e11); Trio in b minor (TWV 42,h5)

John Solum, Richard Wynton, transverse flute; Krista Bennion Feeney, Claire Jolivet, violin; Monica Gerard, viola; Arthur Fiacco, cello; Jordan Frazier, double bass Kent Tritle, harpsichord

In the 17th century Europe was under the spell of the Italian style. Composers went to Italy to learn the newest trends in music, and Italian musicians were received with enthusiasm in particular in Austria and Germany and given important jobs. That influence lasted well into the first quarter of the 18th century. But especially in the second half of the 17th century there were also German composers who felt more attracted to the French style. They were called Lullistes, because it was mainly Jean-Baptiste Lully whom they admired. Some even went to Paris to study with him. In the first half of the 18th century this influence still held, and many composers were inspired by the French style. Among them was Georg Philipp Telemann who had a strong liking of everything French. From this perspective the title of this disc is stating the obvious: Telemann's music was imbued with French musical ideas.

At the same time the title is bit misleading. As strong as the French influence in Telemann's music was, he mostly mixed the French taste with the Italian style. This goût réuni was aimed at by most German composers, not only Telemann, but Bach, Fasch, Graupner and many others as well. In all compositions on this disc we find a mixture of French and Italian elements which is acknowledged in the programme notes.

The Overture in e minor belongs to the genre of the overture-suite. Its roots are in French opera, which usually started with an overture in three sections: a slow section in dotted rhytm, followed by a contrapuntal fast section after which the first section is repeated. This, and the instrumental dances from the opera, were often performed independently, and this was the model for the overture-suite which was hugely popular in Germany. Telemann wrote many of them, and this Overture is just one of the three which open every Production of the collection which was published under the title Musique de table. This Overture is from the first Production, and it has solo parts for two transverse flutes and two violins. This fact is a clear indication of the Italian influence, as well as how they develop their dialogues.

In 1737-38 Telemann stayed eight months in Paris, and here he published his six Nouveaux quatuors. Even these are not entirely French. This can be explained by the fact that the French had embraced the Italian style at last. They liked Vivaldi very much; Michel Corrette even used one of the concertos from his Quattro Stagioni for a motet on the text of Psalm 148. And most French composers were writing in the same goût réuni that Telemann and other German composers preferred. So it doesn't surprise that Telemann's music went down well in France. He pays tribute to the French by concluding the quartet with a chaconne - entitled 'modéré' -, a musical form which no French opera could do without.

These two pieces belong to the better-known works of Telemann. This disc also contains two trios which are far less familiar. They belong to a set of trios which Johann Joachim Quantz, teacher of King Frederick the Great, referred to as written alla Francese (in the French style). He used the Trio in e minor as teaching material. They were advertised by the publisher Breitkopf as late as 1763, which is remarkable considering that they were probably composed before 1712. Both trios are in four movements: slow - fast - slow - fast. As much as they were written in the French style, according to Quantz, they also contain Italian elements, like imitation between the parts and a considerable sense of drama.

I think it is fair to say that there is a bit too much familiar repertoire here. The Overture and the Quartet which have been frequently recorded before and are regularly played at concert platforms, take about three-quarter of this disc. I didn't know the two trios, and I don't think they are easily available on disc. This production had been more worthwhile if the programming had been more adventurous.

And - I have to add - if the performances had been more adventurous as well. To put it bluntly: they are pretty dull. I have heard the Overture in e minor numerous times in much more lively and vibrant performances than here. The fast section of the overture (vite) is too slow and as a result there is too little contrast with the slow sections. The rhythms of the dance movements, for instance the rondeau, are not very marked. Especially in the passepied I noted how few impulses the players receive from the basso continuo. And the last movement, a gigue, is pretty bland and not very dance-like.

I also noted a lack of differentiation. The repeated motifs in the last movement of the Trio in b minor are always pretty much the same. In the slow introduction of the Quartet in e minor there is very little differentiation in the figurations in the violin part. That part is also the weakness of the performance as the violinist doesn't produce a very nice sound: it is often shrill and scratchy. The next movement is called 'gai' (cheerful), but that is not how it sounds here. The Trio in e minor begins with a movement, called 'tendrement', but very tender it is not; it rather lacks subtlety. The next movement, 'viste gai' (fast and cheerful), is too slow, and the last movement (allegrement) lacks depth and expression.

All in all this disc fails to communicate the beauty and expression of Telemann's music. There are still people who think that his music is mostly uninteresting, easy-listening stuff which goes in one ear and goes out the other. They will probably find their prejudices being confirmed by this disc. And I am sure that is not what it was made for.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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