Georg Philipp Telemann: Viola Concertos: Overtures: Fantasias – Antoine Tamestit (viola) & Akadamie für Alte Musik Berlin – Harmonia Mundi 902342 – 1/2022 : 68:28: ****½
In the 40 years I have been seriously listening to classical music and following the scene, I have noticed a shift in the overall position of the composer G. F. Telemann. He has steadily nudged his way forward, passing the likes of Corelli and Vivaldi and then finally also Handel and now occupies the seat adjacent to Bach, his contemporary rival. This is not because Telemann has been generally acknowledged to be superior to those baroque greats (although this could be reasonably asserted). It is rather an artifact of the recording industry finally coming to terms with his vast output with a steadily increasing number of releases that highlight not only finest and well-known works but his many achievements in every genre of instrumental writing, some of it rather on the periphery of the 18th century style.
Telemann wrote for just about every instrument. In fact I think of him more in terms of instrumental combinations than style, Woodwinds, horns, violins, recorders, oboes. He explored effects such as the triangle, the castanets and the tambourine all of which are heard on the recording under review here.. So variety is what we expect and that is what we get on yet another fine Harmonia Mundi release featuring violist Antoine Tamestit in 6 diverse works.
The opening Overture Burlesque serves up the fizzy and bubbly Baroque of the theater. Movements are named after characters Harlequin, Scaramouche, Pierrot and a concluding Turkish inflected Mezzetin en Turc. The range is from lively to stately. Nothing as raucous as Rameau but that is the general direction. The lute and bass add much to a texture that could become monochrome with an all string ensemble.
The helpful liner notes inform us that it was Telemann who wrote the first concerto for viola and this four movement work is an auspicious beginning. After a sumptuous introduction we are treated to the resplendent sound of the violists 1672 stradivarius. I have never heard such dark colors in the lower range of the alto and they are set off to advantage by the sound stage. The work bustles along with joy and vigor but if you weren’t paying attention you might pass it off for one of Vivaldi’s better cello concertos.
This is not the case for the remarkable works that follow. What really makes this release attractive are the Canonic sonatas for 2 violas and the two fantasias for solo viola. Considering how many hundreds of times we encounter Bach cello suites it is a wonder that these works have not broken into that sphere. One day I predict we will be walking the Highline in Manhattan and some of the several cellists busking will be replaced by a violist playing these words and answering politely, “ No, not Bach, but rather a contemporary of his named Telemann”. The Canonic Sonata is simply brilliant. The piacevole non largo is a spell-binding melody. These are strict canons so one instruments chases the other around, but the subjects are intricate and Tamestit gets the most out of his instruments (heard twice it seems since no other violist is credited) playing without vibrato but with a coaxing sound that goes plangent to consoling to rustic in the space of a piece.
One reluctantly turns back to the more generic overture only to find an unexpected twist. La Changeux jumps to a new key in every movement and is filled with exotic touches. Telemann was much taken with Polish folk songs and there is some of that here. But also Hornpipe and a Canarie, jovial numbers in bright keys. The eight movements taken together, which bounce through mood and rhythm, sound like a contest called “who can do the best Rameau imitation.”. This is meant as the highest compliment. But what makes Telemann so rewarding is that he can imitate ALL the great composers of the 18th century because he knew all the tricks, the deep craft of the learned style and understood the resources of each instrument better than anyone in his time.
Harmonia Mundi has long been the preeminent label for Early Music and this recording is up to their high standards. They have single-handedly advanced the Telemann cause in the past decade with a number of notable performances. The greatest of these to my ears is probably the 2010 release of The Complete Tafel Musik by the superb Freiburger Barockorchester under the direction of Gottfried Van der Goltz. These works are among the most popular of Baroque compositions and justly so.
Ths release will appeal to fans of those recordings, but also to any serious practitioner or partisan of the viola. Any chance to hear playing of this order should not be missed especially when wed to works that significantly broaden the artistic repertoire of both an instrument and a first-rate composer.