Similar, but not the same

GEORG PHILIPP TELEMANN: SIX CONCERTI

Hans-Dieter Michatz, Monika Kornel

Move Records MCD 576

 

Once upon a time, you could hardly go to any period music affair in Melbourne without coming across one of two expert flautists: Greg Dikmans or Hans-Dieter Michatz.   The former you can still find  playing in large-scale events; the last time I saw him was at one of the major concerts for the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival a couple of years ago.  But Michatz has been absent for a while.  I thought this lack of appearances might have been caused by a move to Europe or America or Japan – any place where his talents would be valued.  But it appears not: he has been ill.

He was diagnosed with focal dystonia, which Dr. Google informs me is a neurological problem with your muscles that makes them contract or distort.  So Michatz has had to give up his work on the transverse flute and, along with that, his long-range plan to record these Telemann concerti as the composer originally specified.  For a substitute, he offers these works on two recorders: a tenor in C and a voice-flute in D.  While he’s not entering the lists and claiming these works for the recorder repertoire, he finds that they are unexpectedly congenial in transplanted mode.

Further, Michatz is accompanied by harpsichordist Monika Kornel, artistic director of the Sydney Consort and a stalwart supporter of the musician throughout the painful process of re-shaping his career.  Not surprisingly, the pair make a sterling partnership in what are called concerti but are, in more ways than one, duo sonatas; not that you need to worry about discrimination between specific terms in a period as non-doctrinaire as the Baroque where even the colossal figure of Bach was often enough highly flexible with some of his descriptors.

The age-old question with these six Telemann works is: are they all the same?  I don’t know why but, since my youth, the accusation/observation has persisted that you will always find it hard to differentiate between this composer’s works, a) because he wrote so many, and b) because his vocabulary is free of the distinctive polyphonic grandeur or contrapuntal mesh-work of his two great contemporaries.  A facile temptation is always there, especially among non-musicians, to group Vivaldi and Telemann as a successful duopoly notable for prolific output but mechanical achievement.

Well, these concerti do have similarities, but you’d expect that.  The format follows an unchanging sequence of four movements; although the performing headings can change (are they Telemann’s own? The oldest manuscript that my limited resources can find suggests that they are), the pattern is a consistent slow-fast-slow-fast, inherited from the church sonata.  As you’d expect, the actual keys vary but, once Telemann settles on a tonality, you rarely move far away from it, although there are some surprises in the later scores.

The first concerto in D Major opens with a piacevole, that easeful injunction that proposes, as one of my teachers once put it, that you ‘can do what you like’ as long as it’s agreable – which in music can mean anything.   Michatz and Kornel adopt a gentle strolling pace.  About the only disruption to its progress comes with a passage in triplets that is over almost before it makes any impression.  The following Allegro shows the composer’s delight in sharing the material equally between his executants and his nimble handling of close imitation and modulations, the pages given with unfussed, mobile aplomb. The following B minor Largo is a delicately accomplished duet where the triplets give way to sextuplets and, as in previous movements, the players have many passages in duet at a third or a sixth.

The concluding Vivace is filled with ornamentation, for once not sounding over-cramped in its handling.  Admittedly, some of the bar-sequences are terrifically predictable, but the unexpected emerges when a couple of bars emerge that sound as though they had strayed in from a Rossini overture.  This is the only part of the concerto with repeats of both halves; no sign of fatigue from the musicians but. leaving aside the demands of proportion and balance, the regularity and pattern-building is a tad wearisome.

Concerto No. 2 in G minor opens in a 12/8 siciliano-suggestive Largo, with an initial sharing of the melodic statement, one instrument after another before the centre of the movement moves into a true simultaneous sharing of the labour.  It shouldn’t, but this whole concerto brings to mind the questionable Bach (probably C.P.E.) G minor Flute Sonata, although this part of it serves to show how happy Telemann could be with formulae and regularity of structure.  A crisp Vivace both illustrates this sense of order and occasionally disrupts it when, for example, a four-bar sequence is suddenly curtailed, missing a bar as the composer breaks back into his initial subject’s restatement.

A Handelian Soave in B flat Major follows, a short interlude that gives a splendid exhibition of this duo’s fluency and sensitive mimicry of each other in bending melodic lines and selecting notes for emphasis: the sort of detail you expect from players who know their period and know each other.  More unassuming examples of asymmetry emerge in the final Vivace with its 14-bar first half and second portion of 37 bars, along with its economical material that avoids sounding four-square through the unexpected nature of the harpsichord’s activity; not that it veers off into sudden flights of imagination, but the passage work and accompaniment figures offer mild surprises.

Tempo giusto is the heading for the Concerto No. 3 in A Major which opens with another amiable walking tune; so the executants take the direction as less ‘strict’ and more ‘appropriate’.  The movement’s second half is repeated, allowing Kornel’s keyboard some exposure, before a brief coda.  In the following Vivace, the interest seems to fall on the harpsichord,although Michatz has pride of place for the opening 8 bars.  A busy movement, it suddenly breaks into Scarlatti territory a little over half-way through when a sudden burst of repeated notes interrupts the normal chain of arpeggio and scale-based activity.  I’ve listened to this movement several times and can’t avoid the feeling that the prevailing rate of speed changes or slightly accelerates once the instruments are in real duet mode.

As expected, the concerto’s Adagio is in the relative minor and, in the prevailing context, sounds exceptionally meditative and not in a hurry to finish.  Michatz and Kornel maintain a stately pace, giving themselves ample room to negotiate the elaborations that are part-and-parcel of the two soprano lines – demi-semiquaver groups and galant-style duplet snaps.  The Presto that rounds off this concerto is simplicity itself – nothing taxing for these players – but it also has its own off-centre charm where four-bar sequences are finished off with a short two-bar scrap of filler.  The delight comes in realizing that there is really no inflexible, mathematical balance at work; just like Bach, Telemann can opt for the unexpected, even if he is not ostentatious about achieving it.

The next work, Concerto No. 4 in E minor, opens with a Largo that, for a while, raises the possibilities of a French ouverture but is not that ambitious, oscillating between the stately dotted note rhythm and fluid triplets; quite rhetorical in its language but within the bounds of decorum   –  the Dean of Windsor as opposed to Bishop Curry.   Surprises abound in the Vivace where the harpsichord announces a ten-bar theme before the recorder enters and, from there on, the forward movement makes a series of elongations and abridgements that are treated all-of-a-piece by these players, making sure we are aware of the re-appearances of the initial and rather stolid theme but making much of the busy activity that comes between.

While the G Major Dolce opens with a kind of pastoral motif in thirds, the movement proper only starts in bar 15 with a syncopated tune of little distinction. What does have interest is the recurrence towards the end of this movement of a left-hand harpsichord figure from the second bar, as though the composer decided on a spot of recycling.  This calm placidity is counterbalanced by a sort of gigue-finale, a Vivace in 12/8 which is given aggressive handling, especially by Kornel who revels in its abrupt stops and starts, her part punctuated by demi-semiquaver groups of four simultaneously in both hands.  It’s an unexpectedly violent set of pages, almost impatient in its rush to completion, and the only movement on the entire disc where I caught a wrong note in the keyboard part.

There’s a sort of break in the tonality alternations that have obtained so far in these concertos with No. 5 which is a B minor work, the only one that opens with an Adagio; a slow-stepping processional which features plenty of elegant linear dovetailing and interception work from both executants.  The succeeding Vivace in 3/2 keeps the harpsichord in figured bass mode for about 14 bars before permitting it any melodic contribution but, from then on, the instruments enjoy some rapid-fire contrasts and duplications, although the pace does slacken at two points – bars 32-33 and at bar 49 – although it’s hard to see why, unless the players feel they are in danger of becoming too rhythmically mechanical.

An E minor Grazioso intervenes – its title aptly chosen for the movement’s calm ambience punctuated by disciplined ornamentation.  The only problem here came in the final low-lying bars where an unsteady B from the recorder mars the assured, measured atmosphere.  Kornel has the focus for the start to the Presto finale with about 16 bars’ worth of solo.  This is one of the more aggressive fast movements in the whole collection with plenty of close-order fugato writing and some gestures that are, in this context, unexpectedly flamboyant.  The key might be minor but the temperament is optimistic, almost victorious.

Telemann ends his collection with an A minor construct, starting with an Andante that holds off on committing itself with some restless modulations and a tendency to highlight the dominant.   But, after the novelties exposed in the preceding work, this seems to be business back to normal as far as instrumental counterpoint practice goes.   After this comes a splendid Allegro, exemplifying how the composer can compress his material, while reverting back to the first concerto’s penchant for interpolated triplet passages.  As with so much you hear on this disc, things seem to verge on complexity but never quite get there – neither a good thing nor a bad thing, unless your penchant for the difficult can’t be satisfied by anything less than the Bach B minor Flute Sonata.

During the Largo, Telemann takes some time before pitching onto a definite C Major root, enjoying himself by wandering across other possibilities, including some meandering chromatic descents in the movement’s centre, all the while maintaining his predilection for triplets to soften the onward march of crotchets and quavers.   Here, Michatz and Kornel enter into the pages’ spirit with an approach that suggests the improvisatory and emotionally diffident; as we used to say on the acropolis, Nothing in excess.  But then the Allegro assai that finishes the whole opus is remarkably lavish with different themes for the participants to elaborate, while also doing the Bachian trick of introducing a passing theme (and it is as transient as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment) before working back to the initial interweaving topics for discussion.   In other words, there’s yet another slight and subtle surprise in the tail of this collection.

As a labour of love on Michatz’s part, this is a welcome addition to the Move disc catalogue.   Yes, the whole thing is a transcription in essence, but what you lose in the flute’s carrying power, you gain in the supple suggestiveness of the recorder – or, in this case, two of them (the tenor instrument is used for the Concerto No. 2 in G minor).  To the performer’s credit, apart from this product representing the culmination of an ambition for Michatz and Kornel, his talented supporter/friend, the CD opens yet another window on the rich resource that is available if you bother to delve into the vast wealth of Telemann’s compositions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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