August 1, 2013

Drottningholm Baroque - Telemann & Vivaldi

Drottningholm Baroque - Telemann & Vivaldi
If asked to recommend a disk most likely to spark the casual classical fan, those whose collections consist solely of Marriner’s Brandenburgs and a Wal-Mart Four Seasons, to get truly excited about Baroque music, I just might turn to this splendid 1984 recording of four mixed flute and bassoon concerti of Telemann and Vivaldi as performed by the crackerjack Sweden-based outfit Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble (DBE).  Not only is near perfection achieved in performances captured faithfully in a full, alive recording, but this
group of musicians provides a telling introduction to period instrument sound, gloriously rich and expressive without the racing tempi and speaker-busting over-dynamic range seen in many so-called HIP (historically informed performance) proponents, particularly certain Italian bands that often attack their original Guarneri’s mercilessly.

Not that they’re beyond adopting brisk speeds when warranted, as in the thrilling final Allegro of Vivaldi’s G-minor La Notte (“The Night,” RV 439) concerto that may remind novices of the final movement Four Seasons’ “Winter” concerto, with a quickly rolling four-note element flavored with darting runs from the bassoon.  In the end the program, presenting two mixed concerti for bassoon and block flute as well as two for one of the aforementioned instruments solo, with both composers getting a crack at each type, could not have been more well chosen, affording not only a varied look at the potential range of these ancient instruments, but also illustrations of the compositional breadth of our respective tunesmiths, with examples of slow expressiveness, punchy virtuosity and even a bit of impish humor.  And it would be nearly impossible to top our principal soloists, bassoonist Michael McCraw (of Camerata Koln), who tackles a copy of a 1730 Dutch instrument quite adroitly, and Clas Pehrsson, a famed Stockholm teacher, also on a copy of  18th century origin, in this case a charming, extroverted treble recorder with an absolutely adorable upper range.

It nearly goes without saying that GP Telemann (1681-1767) is along with Haydn the least well known truly great composer among casual classical fans.  One of the most prolific composers in history and a thousand times more popular in his day than Bach, he can seem a little aloof and proper to modern ears, largely because his gifts were so prodigious one seldom discerns any struggle in his creation of interlocking contrapuntal lines and efficient melodies that often appear ‘discovered’ rather than composed, as if Telemann were simply assembling, measure-by-measure, a musical edifice that mirrored the very cosmos.  Given he prefers to keeps his emotions close to the vest, the key is listening first for the great ingenuity of structure then, after adjusting to his controlled sound world, akin to one’s pupil dilating in a darkened room, slowly, inexorably allow Georg to gently nudge, but never pull, your heartstrings.  Once that happens, I guarantee you’ll view the Baroque differently, and you’ll find yourself collecting the large, multi-disk sets of McCraw’s Camerata Koln who, along with Reinhard Goebel’s Musica Antiqua Koln, represent the single best proponent of this composer in the catalogue.

As the CD begins (with Telemann’s F Major double concerto for bassoon and recorder) the sound captured by the BIS engineers immediately impresses with ample bass and powerful yet appropriately astringent strings setting the stage for our soloists to enter one by one, singing out the initial melody, first McCraw with his instrument’s firmly rounded, superbly resonant sound (never ‘honking’ as some Baroque bassoonists do), then Pehrsson slicing forward with a purity of tone so raw as to nearly startle -- his instrument retaining enough of the plastic child’s recorder sound to bring a bit of a smile.  Here we get a first look at a Telemann trademark:  melodic lines are first shared sequentially between the two soloists, then farmed out to the strings before being reclaimed and doubled again, often with slight alterations or partially delayed in semi-canon.

Onward to the aptly named Vivace movement, employing the same methodology of trading lines amongst soloists and tutti, but at speeds cranked up threefold, setting up a perfect contrast with the third movement, marked “Grave,” with heartrending, vulnerable bassoon lines weaving through thickets of pulsating strings.  We end this four movement work (the structure more characteristic of the late Baroque) with an elegant Allegro featuring a good-natured conversation between the strings and recorder embellished by rollicking leaps on the double reed, a perfect example of Telemann’s ability to write idiomatically for virtually any instrument in both solo and ensemble passages, impressively realized by the DBE.

The music continues with Vivaldi, perhaps the most underrated of composers, accused by no less a modern figure than Stravinsky as re-writing the same concerto 500 times, as well as having little or no harmonic facility.  Regardless of his ability to win a fugue writing contest he was the most modern of Baroque composers, with a refinement of Corelli’s interplay amongst solo and passagework a blueprint for all future innovations (including, arguably, rock music) and his amazing ability to piece together small, confined motifs at once both simplistic and startling into a greater whole somehow less episodic than the elements would suggest.  Over familiarity with lesser, program works such as the Four Seasons versus his more complex, later string concertos and wonderful chamber pieces skews our notion of the Red Priest’s art.

Vivaldi was quite fond of the bassoon, writing over three dozen concertos for the instrument, including a fine example on this disk, RV 485 which, as with the aforementioned Telemann work, is in the key of F Major, though in the more customary three movements.  You’ll note a greater variety in the strings employed by the Italian versus the German, which begin with a rocking pulse (joined by low blurts from the bassoon) then on to sweeping back and forth before dipping back to a hushed pizzicato. Also salient is the invention in the melody, appearing nearly improvised at times, unfolding in characteristically long, slinky runs that ultimately touch every register of the instrument.  The ensuing Andante saunters along amicably, peppered with reed trills, before breaking out into the final Allegro Molto, a real workout that includes many single violin notes repeated in unison, another Vivaldian flourish.

Telemann’s contribution to the solo concerti on this BIS release is a C Major work for flute that also features a dialogue with pizzicato accompaniment (though, as one would expect, not as dramatically employed as the Italian) in a mid-tempo Allegretto, followed by a rapid Allegro with brilliant runs that seem quite natural, never forced or simply for effect. In the third section (Andante) he places the flute again in its upper range where it emotes tastefully before the work concludes with a doubletime Minuet requiring amazing virtuosity, particularly from Pehrsson, who in spits out the notes machine-gun style with nary a hint of blurring the line.

What sets this release above the hundreds of Telemann and Vivaldi examples, many merely adequate, some quite wonderful, is the prescient choice of works from among the hundreds of concerti in the respective composers’ war chests that boast memorable tunes, virtuosic splendor, and the expressive contrasts of both solo and supporting roles for instruments occupying diametrically opposed areas of the sonic spectrum amongst wind instruments.  For those looking to see what all the “period instrument” fuss was about thirty years ago, or simply get a taste of non-elevator Baroque music, this set of four works by two masters seems an ideal launchpad.

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