Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767)
Overture (Suite) in E flat, TWV55:Es2 for flute pastorelle, strings and continuo [20:22]
Overture (Suite) in F, TWV55:F14, for two oboes, strings and continuo* (1712-21) [16:46]
Overture (Suite) in a minor, TWV55:a2, for recorder, strings and continuo [31:30]
*Wolfgang Dey (oboe); L’Orfeo Barockorchester/Carin van Heerden (fourth flute, recorder, oboe and conductor)
rec. Alte Kirche, Boswil, Muri, Switzerland, 27-30 March 2006. DDD.
CPO 777 218-2 [68:50]

Telemann was a prolific composer, so you might expect to find a few turkeys among his output; if that is the case, I have yet to discover them. The three works on this CD come from section 55 of his complete works (TWV: Telemann Werke-Verzeichnis), the Overtures or Overture-Suites as they are sometimes called. Only the final work, the Overture in a minor for recorder and strings is well known – it is, indeed, perhaps the best known of his orchestral works, with the possible exception of his so-called Water Music, with several recordings to its credit. Whether or not it was a good idea to couple it with two much less familiar works remains a matter for speculation, though I can see that it would help to make the album more likely to sell, with the additional advantage of making two other Overtures – both well worth hearing – better known.

The a-minor Suite is, in fact, one of the best-known and most important works of the baroque period; it’s available on a number of less expensive recordings, which means that the new recording will have to be special to be recommendable when it reverts, as I imagine that it will, to full price. At the time of writing, however, it comes at a budget price, bundled with CPO’s catalogue, which makes it competitive economically. Around £5 seems to be the target price.

I have taken two inexpensive versions as my benchmarks: Peter Holtslag with the Parley of Instruments/Roy Goodman on Hyperion Helios CDH55091, coupled with two concertos and a Sinfonia in F, and Daniel Rothert with the Cologne Chamber Orchestra/Helmut Müller-Brühl on Naxos 8.554018, with three other recorder/flute concertos. The older Naxos recording, with the Capella Istropolitana, on 8.550156, also holds its place in the catalogue.

The Hyperion offers a wonderfully fleet-footed account of the Suite, with some superb playing from Holtslag and a light-toned accompanying ensemble – a little too light-toned for some reviewers, though that is not a view to which I subscribe.

Carin van Heerden is a versatile and accomplished soloist/director, equally at home on the recorder, the fourth flute, here used as the equivalent of Telemann’s ‘pastoral flute’, and the oboe. Her playing on all three solo instruments is appealing and she is ably abetted by Wolfgang Dey in the Suite for two oboes. L’Orfeo Baroque Orchestra is a small ensemble – for this recording, three each of first and second violins, two each of violas and cellos, double bass, oboe, bassoon and harpsichord. It’s clear that they play authentic instruments or copies, but no details of these are given in the booklet, nor is there any indication of their chosen pitch or tuning temperament.

I chose to listen to the new recording before I reacquainted myself with the opposition; it is, indeed, some time since I listened to any recording of this work. My first impression was that van Heerden rather takes her time over the Overture, with a stately opening, though matters improve with the entry of the solo recorder. Nevertheless, the impression that I should prefer a slightly faster tempo continued throughout the movement, even before I checked the comparative timings on the rival recordings and found the CPO to be the slowest by a margin and just a little too deliberate in places– a minute longer than the Cologne version and two minutes longer than the Hyperion.

In fact, forgetting other versions is more easily said than done. The impression throughout the remaining movements of the Suite that van Heerden’s tempi were consistently a little slow by comparison with Holtslag and Goodman is easily confirmed by comparing the booklets. Time and time again, of course, we discover that a particular movement can be made to sound ‘right’ at different tempi within the context of particular performances. There are, indeed, some real advantages to van Heerden’s more deliberate tempi: the contrast between the largo and allegro sections of the third movement, the air à l’Italien, are given full justice, as are the stately sections of the minuet in the following movement. The disadvantage is that only in the fifth movement, Réjouissance, marked viste, does the joy inherent in Telemann’s music make itself fully apparent. In the penultimate movement, Passepied, where the Hyperion is a little rushed, and the final movement, Polonaise, the slightly slower tempo on CPO allows for some beautifully elegant phrasing, the equal of which is not to be found on the livelier Hyperion version or on the Cologne/Naxos.

I don’t wish to make too much of my reservations concerning van Heerden’s tempi – it’s to some extent a matter of swings and roundabouts and I’m sure that I shall play the new CD almost as often as the earlier recordings – but, if pushed to make a Desert Island choice, I think I might prefer the Hyperion, with the Naxos/Cologne recording my second choice.

The older Naxos recording, with Jiri Stivin and the Capella Istropolitana conducted by Richard Edlinger (8.550156) is to some extent hors de combat, since it adopts a rather cavalier attitude to repeats, thereby almost halving the Overture and the final Polonaise. That’s a pity because in some ways this is my favourite version, with really infectious enjoyment in Les plaisirs and Réjouissance and elegant phrasing to challenge van Heerden’s in the finale. This is one of Naxos’s earliest recordings, dating from the time when they couldn’t even print the letter r and had to write the accent in by hand. They took unknown orchestras like the Capella Istropolitana and made them sound great by giving them plenty of rehearsal time.

With recording quality which still sounds well, three recommendable works as coupling, a Viola Concerto in G and two concertos from Tafelmusik, generous playing time from a period (1988) when some CDs were still very short, and with brief but authoritative notes from Keith Anderson, who still contributes some of their best, this would pip even the Hyperion at the post if it weren’t for those omitted repeats. I can even hear the harpsichord contribution – just audible, as it should be, and as it isn’t on most modern recordings.

I’ve spent a considerable time on the a-minor because it’s so well known and there are so many alternatives. With no other versions to compare, even in memory as far as I am aware, I liked the performances of the other two concertos much better. Both Suites are attractive, but, as I said at the start, I have yet to discover a dud among Telemann’s works. Subscribers to the Naxos Music Library who want to try the music for themselves might listen to the Gigue Finale of TWV55:Es2 – click here. (Once you have logged in, the link will take you to the correct page.)

At its current very favourable price, it might well be worthwhile to buy the new CD for these two works alone and, despite all that I’ve written, you’re unlikely to be seriously disappointed by the performance of the a-minor Suite.

The recording is good throughout, with soloist and accompaniment well balanced and with both well placed for comfortable listening. The harpsichordist is credited in the booklet, but I could hear his contribution only intermittently, even on headphones, though the other continuo instruments are (just) audible, as they should be.

The information on the rear insert confuses the timings of the first and third Suites – perhaps it was the original intention to place the familiar a-minor first, an impression heightened by the fact that the instruments listed on page 5 of the booklet for tracks 1-7 and 16-22 are also reversed. Otherwise the presentation is good. The notes are detailed and informative; the English translation is a little stiff and formal, but that partly reflects the German original. Full marks to CPO for giving us the TWV numbers, when even Hyperion, whose information is usually fastidious, leave us to guess.

Not my ideal version of the well-known a-minor Suite, then, but not one to be rejected, either. The standard of the performance in the other two attractive works would make this a worthwhile purchase.

Brian Wilson