Telemann’s Flute Fantasies Remarkable, Fascinating

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TELEMANN: 12 Fantasias for Flute Without Bass, TWV 40:2-13 / François Lazarevitch, flautist / Alpha Classics 267

Here’s a new recording of Telemann’s flute Fantasias, certainly among his most creative and remarkable pieces, and what makes them so remarkable is that he applied to the flute the same principles that J.S. Bach applied to the solo violin and cello, i.e., it is music in which the solo instrument creates its own counterpoint and accompaniment.

But not everyone approaches this music the same way. Several flautists, obsessed with the melodic quality of this music, de-emphasize the contrapuntal elements; this is how Claire Guimond performs them on Analekta FL23084: Guimond plays the flute very nicely but in a safe, preditable style. Her emphasis is beauty of tone, not variety of sound or emphasis on counterpoint. All the rhythms are “regular,” meaning that the quarter and eighth notes all balance out in a regular metric pattern. By contrast, Lazarevitch employs more rubato in his phrasing, making the quarter and eighth notes sound a bit irregular in meter. He also plays around with the rests, giving the music some space in the middle of a busy phrase in eighths. This gives the music much more the feeling of fantasy, meaning a liberality of pulse that makes the listening experience far more interesting. This is also, if you read the accounts of music critics of the time, an appropriate style of playing Baroque music. The word “baroque” means “ornate,” and it was often considered the mark of a great artist to “break up” the rhythm in an irregular manner in order to make the music more interesting. This was an art that was lost by the late 1930s, when music-making became more and more rhythmically strict and regulated, and it was not really revived until the 1970s in the work of such musicians as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Reinhard Goebel, Gustav Leonhardt and a few others. And then, they were kicked to the curb as the British HIP musicians moved in, took over, and forced everyone back into a strict time-beating manner of playing and conducting.

Playing the Fantasias in this manner also allows the listener to discern the different movements within each piece (the first Fantasia is only 3:22, but all the others range between four and six and a quarter minutes) more clearly, and the ear also allows one to discover relationships between those movements. One also hears remarkable touches, such as the chromatic glisses in the third Fantasia or Telemann’s interesting manner of combining elements of German, French, Italian and even Polish music. Indeed, in the middle of the Fantasia No. 5 in C, one hears a couple of real Irish jigs! The way Lazarevitch plays these pieces they are fun to listen to, and I’m all for enjoying the music I hear. Interestingly, I immediately recognized the opening melody of the Fantasia in G (the eleventh), which is probably the most well-known of the set.

One of the few detriments of this release is that Lazarevitch’s flute is absolutely swimming in a sea of echo. This is one of the banes of modern classical recordings, a tendency to overdo the reverb. Once in a while it helps us appreciate the way Telemann bounced his counterpoint off the melodic line, but too often there is a discernible post-echo or feedback that almost makes it sound as if he is playing the notes twice. Yes, of course you can tell the difference, but considering how many modern-day musicians of all genres love to “play off the feedback,” it detracts from what is otherwise an ebullient and well-thought-out performance.

Strictly from a technical standpoint, Lazarevitch seems to emphasize technique over tone quality. I don’t mean to say that his playing is rough, but producing a consistently round, golden tone on the flute isn’t his thing. You often hear him blowing air across the mouthpiece, and he prefers a lean tone to a round one. This doesn’t bother me very much, however, because of his close identification to the music and his stated goal of projecting the different mood of each piece. As he puts it in the liner notes, “Telemann plays on effects of contrast and surprise by switching between opposing characters and tempi.” Not every flautist is on the same high level of a Claude Monteux or a James Galway, able to produce both a beautiful sound and an interesting interpretation, and I always prefer the latter to the former.

Indeed, as the series progresses, one notices all sorts of little minutae and details in the music. Tonal it may be, but it is certainly not unvaried. One such moment comes at about 2:20 in the midst of the Fantasie in D major (track 7), in which Telemann asks the performer to create an echo effect. Interestingly, he does not continue in this vein, but then suddenly at 4:18, there is it again. By using such devices, he keeps the listener off balance.

The twelve Fantasias climb up through the chromatic scale, but not consistently so. The first is in A major, the second A minor, the third B minor, the fourth B-flat major, then C, D min., D, E min., E, F-sharp min., G and G min. And within each key Telemann finds a different means of expression, but of course pitch is relative. Lazarevitch is hung up on so-called “Baroque pitch,” meaning around A=420 or so, which makes each piece sound a half-tone flat to modern ears. I’m still not entirely sure why the hang-up on this. In a world that operates on A-440—and it’s not going to change in a widespread way any time soon—why bother? Is your flute going to blow up if you play these pieces in A=440? It’s an affectation, folks, but only an irritant to those who have “perfect pitch” (perfect, again, being relative to A=440).

I’m not normally drawn to Baroque music for its own sake, nor really to music for solo flute, but this is quite an extraordinary album despite the few caveats noted above.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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