Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681–1767)
Musique de Table (Tafelmusik)
Schola Cantorum Basiliensis/August Wenzinger
rec. 1964, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin; 1965, Neumünster-Kirche, Zurich
ELOQUENCE 482 5864 [4 CDs: 276:15]
August Wenzinger (1905-1996), not a household name today, was a figure of seminal importance in the history of Baroque performance practice. He was the first to found and direct ensembles playing on period instruments in both Germany and Switzerland. He also was the first professor of viola da gamba and recorder at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (a music academy and research centre for early music in Wenzinger’s native Basel), founded by that great musical philanthropist Paul Sacher in 1933. Not least, Wenzinger was responsible for a great many recording, of music by composers such as Bach, Handel, Machaut and Monteverdi, made especially during the 1950s and 1960s, all (as far as I am aware) using original instruments. Most of these recordings have only ever been available on LP, and the present set of Telemann’s Tafelmusik, recorded in the mid-sixties, is here billed as receiving its “first international release on CD”.
This immensely distinguished and inventive collection of pieces, first published in 1733, unquestionably represents one of the high points of Telemann’s career. Even more than elsewhere, he can be seen here as combining the best of the contemporary French and German styles and as mastering an impressive variety of musical forms. It can be seen from the outline of its contents above that Telemann divides the Tafelmusik into three parts (quaintly termed “Productions”), and then sub-divides each of these into six elements. In each part, there are three orchestral sections: an overture-cum-suite along the lines familiar from Bach’s BWV 1066-1069, a concerto for two or more soloists, and a brief “Conclusion”. These in turn are interspersed with three chamber pieces: a quartet, a trio and a duo sonata (which Telemann terms a “Solo”). In each of those, the continuo of cello and harpsichord is counted as a single instrument. Hence, for example, the second, somewhat more Italianate, “Production” includes a quartet featuring three flutes, a trio involving flute and oboe, and a “Solo” for violin—as well as a concerto for three violins. Wenzinger’s soloists, by the way, all at the time associated with the Schola, are a distinguished bunch indeed, including the flautist and recorder player Hans-Martin Linde, the oboist Michel Piquet, and the violinists Eduard Melkus and Thomas Brandis. Wenzinger himself plays the cello in the chamber pieces and conducts the orchestral ones.
So what of the performances? The first thing to say is that they are extremely well played: both the soloists and the larger forces involved combine virtuosity with sensitivity and a proper sense of style. The sound is also very good indeed, especially for its age. As to the quality of Wenzinger’s direction, however, I am a little less persuaded. One must of course make some allowance for the fact that his interpretations are now more than fifty years old. If vibrato now seems conspicuously present, and ornamentation relatively absent, one really ought not to be surprised. Nor, I suppose, should one be taken aback by the fact that many, maybe even most of the tempi, seem a little slow by contemporary standards. Nevertheless the fact remains that Wenzinger is, on the whole, just a bit dull. Everything he does here has dignity, taste, integrity; but there are times when these performances seem to be treading water, lacking a firmly individual guiding hand; and, even when they are not, Wenzinger’s Telemann lacks a certain fizz, fun, sparkle—of the kind that one hears, for example, in the formidable 2010 account of the Tafelmusik by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra under Petra Müllejans and Gottfried von der Goltz (on Harmonia Mundi).
In terms of bargain price, Wenzinger also faces some strong competition. The 1988 recording by Musica Antiqua Köln and Reinhard Goebel now itself enjoys “classic” status, but still sounds well. My colleague Johan van Veen, indeed, preferred it on balance to the newer Freiburg performance (review). A Brilliant Classics version with Musica Amphion and Pieter-Jan Belder found considerable favour with Jonathan Woolf (review); and both of these issues normally retail for less than the Wenzinger set.
Overall, then, I cannot be quite as enthusiastic about these discs as I would like to be. It would be going too far to say that they are of historical interest only. Wenzinger’s performances are distinguished in their own way, and remain enjoyable to listen too. Whether they are truly competitive versions for 2017 is, however, another matter. Wenzinger was a crucially important figure, to whom everyone involved in the historically informed performance movement owes a considerable debt. But time has moved on, and one cannot help feeling that at least some aspects of his musical aesthetic have now—whisper it not—been superseded.
Previous review: Brian Wilson