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Fanfare Magazine: 25:6 (07-08/2002)
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Harmonia Mundi

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Reviewer: Brian Robins

Where else but from the astonishingly fertile mind of Herr Georg Philipp Telemann might one expect to come across evocations of croaking frogs, the bells of Moscow, and the furious progress of a postilion during the course of one CD? Not to mention fierce Turks, a wild village band, and a very active nightingale. They and other picturesque imagery are all present on this hugely entertaining disc of rarely heard orchestral works.

Doubtless, such picturesque images justify the disc's generic title "La Bizarre," although in fact there is nothing odd about the best work on the disc. As far as I can determine, the brilliantly festive Suite in D for two oboes (not mentioned in Harmonia Mundi's listing of the scoring), two trumpets, timpani, and strings that opens the program is otherwise currently unavailable. It begins with a French overture, the dotted rhythms of the splendidly pompous opening section here tautly organized and crisply articulated, before proceeding to a succession of movements throughout which trumpets and drums play a prominent role. At times that role calls for the lightest of touches, as in the beautifully sprung if rapidly paced Menuet (ii), while in a movement like the final Fanfare they predictably take center stage. Elsewhere there is a splendid and very French Passacaille (iv), and a tranquil Air (v) for strings alone, its gently undulating lines providing the one real moment of repose in an exuberant suite whose previous neglect is unaccountable.

The New OED defines bizarre as "extremely strange or unusual, especially as to cause interest or amusement," which seems a reasonable enough description of at least some of the movements in the three titled works, all of which are scored for strings alone. Witty, whimsical, and inventive are also words that come to mind. The best joke is a musical one, coming in the opening section of the French Ouverture in G for strings that actually carries the rubric "La bizarre." Here various rhythmic crosscurrents have been designed to deliberately work against each other to create an effect that is not only peculiar, but also humorous. There is also a delightful Branle, which after a fairly sedate start works itself up to a wildly bucolic hoedown, here played with breathless abandon and stunning virtuosity. This is the kind ofthing that displays the Berlin ensemble at their colorful best, but at the other end of the scale there is a languidly lovely Rameauesque Sarabande in which self-indulgence totally disrupts the rhythmic flow, destroying any sense of a dance.

Dancers would also have great problems in keeping up with the Akademie's very fast minuets, especially those in "La bizarre," where they'd also have narcissistic agogic pauses to contend with. But these are perhaps relatively minor points in works where exaggeration here and there is arguably a valid interpretative approach. "Les nations," which is not to be confused with the slightly better known "Les nations anciens et modernes," TWV 55:G4, is an eight-movement suite that—in addition to visiting Moscow's bells, and whirling, warlike Turks—also takes us to visit the Swiss, who seem unable to decide whether to be stolid or frisky, and the Portuguese, who are engaged in an energetic chordal dance. "Les Rainettes" are literally tree frogs, whose croaking can be heard from the soloist in the opening movement of the A-Major Violin Concerto, while the note writer rather imaginatively suggests that the still, nocturnal central Adagio depicts the night time wooing of the frogs. The concerto ends with a pair of Menuets, the first rather elegant, the second lighter and very fleet of foot. There are apparently some doubts as to the authenticity of "Les Rainettes," but it is difficult to think of another composer who might have essayed this picturesque piece of Vivaldian parody.

Soloist Midori Seiler's playing is brilliant, as is the corporate playing of this Rolls Royce of period instrument ensembles throughout, to which encomium can be added Harmonia Mundi's engineering. Of the four works, I can find a current rival for only "La Bizarre" (Richard Kapp and the Philharmonia Virtuosi on ESS.A.Y), making the disc an obligatory acquisition for Telemaniacs and a diverting 70 minutes for anyone who enjoys highly characterful, high-powered period instrument performance a la the 21st century.

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