Summary for the Busy Executive: Ginger snaps.
The Big Four of Baroque music – Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and Telemann – reveal quite clearly changing fashions in aesthetic evaluation and that artistic judgment is seldom something fixed. I deliberately listed those four composers in order of present-day prestige, from most to least. In their own time, of course, the ranking would have differed, more like: Handel, Telemann, Vivaldi, and Bach. If Handel is the great dramatist, Bach beyond category, Vivaldi the pioneer and the fantasist, Telemann is undoubtedly the most forward-looking of the quartet. He lived well into the galante and Classical eras. Four years older than Bach, he died seventeen years after and absorbed elements of the new styles.
In his own day, of course, he probably enjoyed the highest reputation of any composer on the European continent, after Handel had moved to England. Telemann preceded Bach as Kapellmeister in Leipzig, and more than one burgher had complained, on hiring Bach, that the city had settled for a mediocrity – making Telemann's departure all the more bitter. In additional to great personal charm (something Bach never had), Telemann combined a solid technique with great wit, even in his sacred music. He must have seemed to connoisseurs like an intellectual Vivaldi. The wit, of course, comes through to this day, as well as a modern taste for the "barbaric" and the exotic. Telemann eschews the suavities of Handel and Bach, probably one reason he had no trouble switching to the fashions of the post-Baroque.
The Concerto polonois gets its title from its second-movement "Largo." Working for a Polish count after he left Leipzig, Telemann became interested in the "savagery" of Polish folk music. My notions of the polonaise were formed by Chopin's "Military" polonaise and by the "Polish act" in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, so I admit to confusion when faced with 18th-century versions of polonaises and à la polaccas, which I usually can't distinguish from minuets or sarabandes. However, my confusion may arise from the fact that many composers appropriated the polonaise from other composers, since Telemann, who had heard the real thing, gives me the characteristic "snap" I associate with the dance.
The impression I most often get from Telemann's music is that of a restless and vivacious mind. If he lacks the musical depth of Bach or the splendor and psychological penetration of Handel, he surprises his listener more than either with some new twist. I find him at his best more often in fast movements than in slow. Part of these animal spirits becomes manifest in his orchestration and in his seeking out of new instrumental effects, almost as assiduous as Vivaldi's. For example, I know of no other concerto for trumpet and bassoon until Hindemith's, and I can't offhand name another concerto for recorder and flute. For the most part, the concerto is pleasant and shapely, but in the last movement, it takes off. The movement is a speedy quasi-musette, with bass drones much of the time. It bites and stamps, like authentic folk dance. Telemann flaunts the roughness of it (and Apollo's Fire takes this even further), with big, gaping holes in the harmonic texture.
As Jeannette Sorrell points out in her liner notes, we don't know precisely what the composer meant by "Grillen" when he titled the Grillen-Symphonie. On the one hand, the word means "crickets," as in Josquin's Renaissance masterpiece "El Grillo" (the cricket). Figuratively, it means "whims." So the piece is either a "cricket symphony" or symphony of whims. Certainly, the capriciousness of Telemann's musical mind comes to the fore with extensive solos for the bass fiddle, but to me, the work is primarily full of crickets rather than crotchets. The first movement is a symphony of chirps, from just about every instrument in the band. In the second, the chirps become decorous, almost courtly, with the chirps carried on mainly by the oboes. The finale, a presto, is a swarm of bugs, in "savage" flurry.
The painterly impulse carries over into the Ouverture burlesque and the Burlesque de Don Quixotte, both suites of character pieces, the latter based on Cervantes and the former on characters of the commedia dell' arte. The Ouverture burlesque is mostly agreeable, but little more, until we get to the last movement, "Mezzetin en Turc" (Mezzettino in Turkish get-up), a fine example of the "alla turca" music of the Baroque and Classical eras. The style gave composers the freedom to go hog-wild (for the time) on percussion. Here, Sorrell imitates some of the effect by putting "buzzy paper" among the strings of her harpsichord. Of course, Richard Strauss has spoiled us for Telemann's Don Quixotte. You really do have to clear your mind of Strauss to get into the Telemann and adjust your expectations to a smaller, more contained scale, but it's well worth the effort. Throughout, one hears little "Spanish" touches, as in the movement "Don Quixote awakens," to the strum of the guitar, apparently. The attack on the windmills is carried out with sharp syncopations. In the following movement, Quixote sighs with love for Dulcinea, and one can hear the rhythm of the beloved's name in the music. After that, Sancho Panza gets tossed in a blanket, and Telemann gets you to see him flung up in the air and landing hard on the way down. A particular delight is the movement "The galloping of Rosinante and that of Sancho's mule." Rosinante, Quixote's "steed," apparently has a willing spirit, but weak legs, while Sancho's ride jigs along steady and unconcerned. The final movement, "Quixote asleep," is a breathless whirl. The Don's mind never seems to turn off.
I saw Sorrell and Apollo's Fire give a gorgeous live performance of the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers, with two (count 'em, two) theorbos. This program inhabits a lighter, happier neighborhood, and they show their very great range. Too often, Telemann gets short shrift in perfunctory performances, but Sorrell and her players spend as much thought on these pieces as they do on Monuments of Kultur. These accounts are not only bright-eyed, alert, and eager, they dig to the essence of Telemann's music. The style is HIP, as is the attitude. Love it.
Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz