Not entirely without reason, Georg Philipp Telemann’s reputation today as a “light” composer often has unjustly discouraged would-be listeners from exploring his more challenging, if not extravagant side. And it’s a pity since Telemann, who was recognized in his day as quite the opposite, possessed extraordinary wit, a keen imagination, and a boundless sense of humor–all of which manifested themselves in his vastly prolific oeuvre more often than is generally believed.
My initiation began years ago with an LP recording of Telemann’s Suite for Hunting Horns and Orchestra, a riotous work setting the ensemble Rallye Louvarts de Paris’ dissonant blaring brass against the suave, seamless strings of the Jean-Francois Paillard Chamber Orchestra (briefly available on CD in an Erato collection titled “Telemann in Hambourg”). For the uninitiated, this new Harmonia Mundi offering by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin appropriately titled “La Bizarre” should do the trick. It’s a wonderfully inspired, intelligently conceived, expertly performed program guaranteed once and for all to put to rest Telemann’s stereotype as a strictly “light” composer.
While the opening Suite in D major features many lively spirited moments, the second Overture Les Nations and the final Overture La Bizarre admittedly deliver the bolder, more programmatically fun goods. For instance, in the third movement (“Les Turcs”) of Les Nations we are treated to a raucous romp, an exhilarating succession of tempo changes, melodic about-faces, and dynamic contrasts. The fifth movement (“Les Moscovites”) is equally striking, a haunting piece built on a cleverly relentless progression of bass chords. Unlike Les Nations, the La Bizarre overture is less obviously concentrated, its surprises subtly laced throughout every movement. Especially enjoyable here are Telemann’s sly uses of ritardando in the Courante, Branle, Sarabande, Minuet II, and the finale of the Rossignole.
The centerpiece (as well as pièce de résistance) of this program is Telemann’s recently discovered violin concerto in A subtitled “Les Rainettes”. While the first movement begins safely enough, the abrupt whining pitch of soloist Midori Seiler’s violin soon interjects, her instrument purporting to allude to (according to the notes) a croaking frog though ultimately sounding more like a diffuse air raid siren. This auspicious entry begins one of the most imaginatively styled programmatic displays this side of Biber–and once heard, this grand concerto will not soon be forgotten.
Harmonia Mundi’s sound is crisp and clear with the performers set in a natural, believable acoustic perspective. Peter Huth’s comprehensive notes are informative and entertaining. For Telemann enthusiasts, this may prove to be the most important CD offered this year. Others with a passing interest in Telemann are encouraged to take a chance. They’ll not only be rewarded with a vital, adventurous program, but more importantly, they’ll likely be inspired enough to investigate further. A remarkable accomplishment all around. [6/1/2002]