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January/February 2009, "Fanfare" magazine, USA

What's this? Another A-Minor Suite by Telemann? Ah, but this one is different-aside from being one of the over 100 that he composed, this one is actually being given its first recording. The suite, or "overture" as it was called at the time, was one of the most popular forms in its day, and we even find Johann Scheibe complaining at the time, "[O]ne can hardly begin the concert with any other composition." Many of Telemann's suites took names, such as "Nations Ancient and Modem" or "The Stylish Lady." Here we are absent the literary or stage associations and instead get a straightforward, though hardly average, work in the French style. We have dance movements speaking of "Pleasures" and "Furies," ballroom dances like the rigaudon, an English jig, and a Slavic hornpipe, all played here with vivacity, wit, and a touch of seriousness.
Most of the composer's sonatas were in fact more easily played pieces designed for home use, are more complex and integral than many of the other chamber works. They are four-movement cycles indicative of the older style, yet still unmistakably of the composer's time, with many fugal imitations and canons continuing with no little degree of intricacy. But this was not a man enamored with Italianate virtuosic tendencies-he felt the French style, with its emphasis on melody and flattering harmony to be far superior to thc "superficial virtuosity" of the Italian school. No Vivaldi for him.
It may be that the composer's familiarity with all instruments and mastery of none led him to write music for players with a careful consideration of their natural technical limitations and abilities. It would certainly account for the fact that these works remain among his most popular. The flute and violin concerto given here [TWV 52:e3] is one of the most popular he ever wrote, and its quiet, unassuming manner, with a smoothness of line and wonderful cantabile have enchanted players and listeners for years. The more serious concerto for two flutes [TWV 53:e1] is not as well known, but only a smattering of opportunities to hear it allow for it to work its magic on the ears. This was, I believe, my first acquaintance with it, and it certainly captured me.
These are period performances, so be forewarned that the sometimes astringent strings can have an unwieldy effect on those not prepared. Even though I don't prefer them, I have come to be used to them, and period-playing today is so far removed from the horrors of yesteryear that one can hardly make comparisons. These folks do very well, and are obviously attuned to the Telemannian spirit, with lively and energetic fast movements contrasted nicely with not-too-overdone slow ones, especially when one hears the lovely contrast of the mellow flute-playing. This is overall an excellent recording of Telemann, sure to please collectors and fans; it will also serve nicely as an introductory album to novices, especially those enlightened enough to posses an SACD player, of which the sound here is exemplary. However, I would be remiss indeed if I did not mention two discs for the novice collector especially: "Concertos for Woodwind Instruments" by Camerata Köln on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (period instruments), and the finest introductory Telemann disc I know of the Recorder Suite in A-Minor, the Viola Concerto, and selections from Tafelmusik, all on a super-cheap Naxos disc by Capella Istropolitana (8.550156). Steven E. Ritter


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