The Russians are coming - and about time
I wonder what has to happen for this gorgeous recording project to finally be acknowledged the way it deserves to be - or even, for that matter, noticed at all. The Latin name of this Moscow band of very young, enormously talented musicians means "unmown meadow", and indeed there is a vast expanse of unknown territory waiting to be explored by them. Georg Philipp Telemann is thought to have written several hundred overture suites, most of which are now considered lost; however, there are still about 120-125 extant, and these (with the exception of only a handful that could gain limited popularity) have been rather, and inexplicably, neglected. Whatever it may be that keeps things restrained - certainly it's not the music itself. Being just my kind of baroque, I went in search of these suites even on radio programmes, and find it safe to say that some of Telemann's greatest works have never yet made it on CD. Pratum Integrum rightly regard these hidden treasures as the ideal field to establish themselves - and the aspiring Caro Mitis label - in the early music scene for good; and while a similar project by the Belgian Collegium Brugense (on modern instruments) didn't last very long, I give those Russians credit for ultimately reaching their goal. Which is a high one for sure, an enterprise of truly heroic proportions, one that will require a tremendous amount of patience - on both sides, of course.
So far, Pratum Integrum/Caro Mitis have presented 17 suites, and are set to continue to release two double CD sets per annum, which means they'll need about ten years until completion. Fortunately, however, the results of their work are anything but superficial - one glance at the cover and booklet will quickly show that much. (Those blessed with superior stereo equipment will even benefit from the "Super Audio Sound" I still have to experience.) But what exactly, then, do Pratum Integrum sound like? It's not quite easy to describe and, as I must confess, it took me a while to really get comfortable with both their sound and style. Let's say they are a bit of an acquired taste, cool and slightly harsh. I think "discipline" might be an appropriate term - these renderings aren't so much about expression, let alone passion, but rather about achieving the utmost structural clarity so essential in baroque ensemble music. Which isn't to say they are devoid of temperament either, only there are no excesses, no exaggerations, this is not virtuosity for virtuosity's sake. Tempi can be fast - sometimes extremely so - but then the choice is always justified. The faster movements are played faster, the slow ones slower. It has become an ungainly fashion lately to rush through the minuets as if they were gigues - PIO don't. All in all they display an admirable mixture of accurateness and stylistic confidence, never trying to use these works as a mere vehicle to demonstrate their skills. Makes you think they grew up with Telemann's music as their very lullabies, even in that country far away...?
Of the six overture suites presented in this volume, the four written in major keys are immediately appealing. The first one, TWV55:D12, might be the most ravishing of all due to its strong folk music associations, Polish and other. This has long been a favourite of mine, a veritable whirlwind of a suite - incidentally, that's exactly what the title of the sixth movement, "Tourbillon", means. (In this work like many others, the strings are doubled by a woodwind trio to achieve a fuller sound.) In the B flat and E major works, the stately, artfully constructed overtures contrast with the lively and witty, sometimes very short and mostly dance-like suite movements, whereas the work in G major, scored for solo violin and strings, is altogether in a broader style and a more lyrical vein. It contains a dreamy Loure of supreme beauty. (Because of PIO's habit to play all of the overtures' repeats, even in the longish ones, here the opening movement exceeds a playing time of 7 mins.) - To those who have only a superficial knowledge of Telemann and regard him solely as a "composer of good cheers", it may come as a surprise that he can be at times austere, melancholy, a bit dark even, but then it never feels contrived and is still backed up by plenty of energy. These minor-key suites do have their own charms up their sleeves, even if it takes a bit longer to open up to them. Listen to the concluding Rondeau of the D minor suite, a model of tenderness and elegant simplicity, then listen again: maybe this piece, small and unimposing as it is, can serve as an example par excellence of what makes this composer's music so irresistible? -- All hail Pratum Integrum! I wish you and me and all Telemann lovers out there the very best of luck.