Biondi Makes Magic of Telemann

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Poor Telemann! A nice guy, almost completely self-taught as a musician and composer, good friend of both Bach and Handel, he wrote more music than either of his two friends and yet is scarcely as well known. Oh, everyone knows his name, but the music always seems to get shoved aside because it wasn’t as intricate as that of his first friend or as popular as that of his second.

Fabio Biondi tries to set things straight, just a bit, with the release of this effervescent album of violin fantasias which becomes available on September 16. Once again, however, these works are overshadowed, in this case by the Solo Sonatas and Partitas for Violin written by Bach 15 years earlier (1720). Add that to the fact that Telemann, who was almost always broke, was trying desperately to appeal to amateur violinists rather than professionals in order to sell more copies of his music, and you have a lot of academics turning their nose up at these charming, delightful pieces.

Biondi proves how well they can sound when played by someone who has a splendid technique and the effervescent energy they need to make their impact. He plays here a Ferdinando Gagliano violin from the 18th century, and yes, he plays with straight tone, but as I’ve said for years, it’s not the tool or the specific technique of playing that makes a great musician, it’s what he or she does with the music. Or, to be more colloquial, “Tain’t what ‘cha do, it’s the way how ‘cha do it, that’s what gets results.” There are musicians—hundreds of them—who play with straight tone and also a “flat affect” emotionally speaking. They do not use dynamics shadings; they don’t know how to play legato; they don’t make the music sing. None of this has anything to do with “authentic style,” it’s just a load of bull. Biondi understands this, which is why his orchestra, Europa Galante, is one of the greatest in the early music field, and he completely “gets it” when it comes to playing 18th-century music like this on the violin.

This is certainly not the first recording of these works, but the performances are so good that one is immediately captivated by his playing. Biondi has the same kind of effervescence that one heard in the Baroque playing of Yehudi Menuhin, who did not use straight tone; of Bronislaw Huberman, who alternated between straight tone and vibrato; and of of Amandine Beyer who, like Biondi, uses straight tone almost exclusively. What do they have in common?? They were (or are) all great musicians, which as I say, makes the tools used to communicate the music secondary to the feeling they project.

One of the traps that many modern-day straight-toners fall into, as my reviewing colleague Jerry Dubins has pointed out, is that they play so fast that the music gets lost. Yes, each note is sounded individually, but when they’re run together like Pacman gobbling up little balls at 90 miles an hour, you lose articulation. It almost becomes a blur in the listener’s mind and ear; the note sequences make no musical sense. They’re just ordered noise.

As to the music, it is interesting and actually pretty technical for “amateur” violinists to play, if not as complex in terms of the double stops and other technical difficulties in the Bach pieces. There are also not as many inner voices for the soloist to bring out. Yet none of this prepares the listener for the interesting turns of phrase and delightful variations that Telemann came up with. Take away the fact that this music is resolutely tonal and does not explore much in the way of “outside” harmonies, and this music would be the pride of any modern-day composer. All of the 12 Fantasias are different; not one of them sounds like any of the others. Telemann’s talent for musical invention is, however, more fully appreciated if one listens to a few of them at a time instead of, as I did for review purposes, all dozen at once. It is much easier to savor this music a few pieces at a time than to swallow the whole of it in one gulp.

Although I’ve been a fan of Biondi’s Europa Galante for several years now, this was the first time I’ve ever heard Biondi play solo violin for any extended period of time. I will certainly be looking out for any future releases he cares to record.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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