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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767): "Melodious Canons & Fantasias"

Elysium Ensemble

rec: May 16 - 17, June 1 - 2 & Oct 21, 2016, Melbourne Recital Centre
Resonus Classics - RES10207 (© 2018) (59'13")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Fantasia for transverse flute No. 6 in d minor (TWV 40,7)a [1]; Fantasia for transverse flute No. 12 in g minor (TWV 40,13)a [1]; Fantasia for violin No. 7 in E flat (TWV 40,20)b [2]; Sonata No. 1 in G (TWV 40,118)ab [3]; Sonata No. 2 in g minor (TWV 40,119)ab [3]; Sonata No. 3 in D (TWV 40,120)ab [3]; Sonata No. 4 in d minor (TWV 40,121)ab [3]; Sonata No. 5 in A (TWV 40,122)ab [3]; Sonata No. 6 in a minor (TWV 40,123)ab [3]

Sources: [1] Fantasie per il Violino senza Basso, 1732/33; [2] XII Fantasie per il Violino senza Basso, 1735; [3] XIIX Canons mélodieux ou VI. Sonates en duo a flutes traverses, ou violons, ou basses de viole, 1738

Greg Dikmans, transverse flutea; Lucinda Moon, violinb

In older books on music history the baroque period is sometimes called the 'basso continuo era'. And indeed, the basso continuo was one of the foundations of music written between around 1600 and the end of the 18th century. Some traces of the basso continuo practice are even noticeable in the 19th century, for instance in the oeuvre of Mendelssohn.

Music for a melody instrument without a basso continuo part was rather rare in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The main reason probably was that most chamber music was intended for amateurs, to be played in social gatherings. There was little use for true solo pieces, in which the player is all on his own. It seems that most music for an instrument without basso continuo was written by composers for their own use, such as the pieces for solo violin by Biber or Westhoff. Such music was also seldom printed.

Amateurs were better served by duets, pieces for two instruments without basso continuo. Most of this kind of repertoire dates from the 18th century, and reflects the increasing popularity of domestic music making. In New Grove Michael Tilmouth states that "much of it is on a trivial level", and part of the repertoire was also written for educational purposes. However, some composers produced substantial music for this scoring, and among them were Jean-Marie Leclair and Georg Philipp Telemann.

The present disc includes a series of eighteen canons for two instruments by the latter, grouped into six sonatas of three movements each. According to the title page they were intended for transverse flutes, violins or bass viols. Those were the most common instruments played by amateurs. However, it is certainly possible to play them on a mixture of these instruments, such as the flute and the violin, as is the case here.

The most remarkable feature of these pieces is the form of the canon. A canon is a contrapuntal compositional technique that employs a melody with one or more imitations of the melody played after a given duration. Telemann's canons are published on just one stave. In the booklet Greg Dikmans discusses why a composer like Telemann, in whose music the galant idiom takes such an important place, would be interested in elements of the technique of counterpoint, and even in "the strictest form of counterpoint, the canon". He refers to the ideal of in particular French music of the time, the style Telemann was so fond of: elegant conversation. Telemann explained that the canon was fit to produce just that: "[Even] simple canons at the unison with two, three, or four voices produce an effect that is agreeable to the ear and delights the faculty of the intellect." Here two features of the Enlightenment come together: sentiment and reason.

The three movements always follow the order of the concerto: fast, slow, fast. The two outer movements are in the same key, the slow movements mostly in a closely related key. Most canons take the form of a rondeau, another token of Telemann's French leanings, as this was one of the most popular forms in French music of his time. A rondeau is based on an alternation of a main section (refrain) and subsidiary sections (couplets). They result in various structures, such as ABA, ABAC or ABACA. They give also some kind of structure to the canons.

The canons were published in Paris in 1738, and reprinted in London in 1746. In contrast, Telemann was entirely responsible himself for various sets of fantasias, which he published between 1732 and 1735. Unlike the music for solo violin by the likes of Biber and Westhoff I mentioned above, his fantasias for the flute, the violin, the viola da gamba and the harpsichord were intended for amateurs. However, their technical requirements indicate that we should not underestimate their skills. Telemann composed these fantasias in such a manner that they were interesting enough for connoisseurs, but still within the grasp of good amateurs. In these fantasias Telemann also makes use of counterpoint. In the case of the violin fantasias he uses the technique of double stopping, although rather sparingly. In the flute fantasias polyphony can only be suggested. Dikmans describes it as "compound-line technique", meaning that "the two parts are suggested by leaps between the lower and higher registers".

In the case of the flute fantasias - especially the opening movement from the Fantasia No. 6 in d minor - I wonder whether the moderate tempo chosen by Dikmans works against this suggestion. With a faster tempo the suggestion could be well much stronger. However, the performers have deliberately opted for rather moderate tempi, as Dikmans explains in the booklet, with reference to the writings of Johann Joachim Quantz. I remember performances with stronger contrasts between the fast and slow tempi than is the case here.

It is beyond me to decide which tempo is right or wrong, assuming there is something like 'right' or 'wrong' here. It is only in this movement where I had my doubts. Otherwise I find these performances very convincing, and both artists deliver fine performances of this music which is indeed "agreeable to the ear". This is music which is fit for repeated listening, also thanks to the artists and their refined playing, in the manner of an elegant conversation.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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