Tuesday, February 27, 2018

IndyBaroque's indebtedness to a prolific composer expressed in "Love Letter to Telemann"

Years ago, when the late Charles Rosen visited DePauw University, I raised a question about Georg Philipp Telemann during the Q-and-A session following his talk. Polymath though he was, Rosen gave a somewhat dismissive answer. Either he didn't have much to say about Telemann or he figured I was a Telemann fan seeking for an expert endorsement that would raise him to J.S. Bach status.

The Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra showed its love for Telemann.
As harpsichordist Thomas Gerber's program note for Monday night's Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra concert at the University of Indianapolis indicated,  posthumously Telemann has had to struggle for respect since the Bach revival initiated by Felix Mendelssohn nearly 200 years ago raised the profile of both composers. Martin Ruhnke's 1980 Grove Dictionary article takes up the cudgels expansively, righting its taciturn 1954 predecessor.

Few would claim Telemann the equal of Bach, but there's no reason why the latter composer should forever cast a shadow over the Maestro of Magdeburg. There may be some justice in the 1954 Grove's complaint about Telemann's "lack of any earnest ideal and by a fatal facility naturally inclined to superficiality," but it can't be taken as the last word. And one immediately starts thinking of plenty of lousy music hitched to earnest ideals.

Artistic director Barthold Kuijken said from the Lilly Performance Hall stage that gratitude toward
Telemann from the IBO for a large part of its repertoire justifies the concert's "love letter" title.
Flute maestro and IBO director Barthold Kuijken.
Besides, why shouldn't Valentine's Day be stretched to a season, the way Halloween has been?

You'd have to put in a lifetime of listening and/or study to grasp the full breadth of Telemann, who showed mastery of all the genres of his era, bridging sacred and secular divides with an ease that some have found disconcerting. He took pride in his "mixed taste," which included knowledge and appropriation of the folk and high-art styles of several European countries.

Like Bach, his suites (such as the Sinfonia melodica in C, which ended Monday's program)
used French forms and dances. That splendid piece, played by the full IBO, includes a Loure, a rare designation known to most music lovers only as a movement of Bach's E major partita (or suite) for solo violin. The form is a slow gigue stemming from Normandy, and Telemann's version bears incidental Handelian features. The two men knew each other, though it's doubtful Telemann, who wrote this piece at the age of 83, was under the influence of his fellow Saxon.

Kuijken conducted a charming account of the Sinfonia melodica, whose third movement, Menuet en Rondeau, had great swing to it in this performance. Similar splendor ended the concert's first half: Concerto in D is a masterpiece in the concerto grosso form, which contrasts a solo group (concertino)  with a larger ensemble (ripieno). This was a well-knit performance, with the concertino consisting of flutists Kuijken and Leela Breithaupt, violinist Allison Nyquist, and cellist Christine Kyprianides.

The finale contains lots of exchanges between the flute and string halves of the concertino. I'm tempted to call it cute, so I will. Compared to the more restrained use of color in Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, Telemann's indulgence in this kind of conversation may be partly why people consider him too facile to take seriously.

But delight was a constant in this concert. Kuijken's adeptness as flute soloist was showcased in a D  major concerto that opened the second half. The accompaniment was limited to string quartet, violone (bass) and harpsichord. The balanced diversity of form over the four movements was enchanting: a truly "walking" Andante to impel the excursion gently; a Vivace with an inviting fugal texture to launch things, then lots of intrigue with sequences and syncopation in the solo part; a Largo with a lightly treading accompaniment, including witty rests between phrases, and a concluding Allegro in triple meter with well-mastered leaps in the flute line.

A multifaceted Ouverture in C minor opened the concert, its tempo and meter changes smoothly handled in the French manner.  For a companion indication of how Telemann anticipated the galant style that was eventually to replace intricate contrapuntal works, the Belgian master of the baroque flute played sweetly a three-movement Flute Concerto in G by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, one of the shortest-lived (1710-1736) composers ever to make a mark on posterity.

In 1718 Telemann wrote a couplet that's hard to argue with, which the selections for this program — and how they were played — exemplified throughout: "Give every instrument according to its measure / then players are full of joy and you enjoy the pleasure."*

*translation by Ingeborg Neumann and Dennis Bade, in booklet with Harmonia Mundi's 1994 CD release "Les Plaisirs" (Telemann chamber concertos) by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

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