There’s a tendency for many musicians, myself included, to revere Bach but dismiss Telemann as a composer known more for his prodigious productivity than any real talent. But the program by Les Bostonades last Friday night at the First Church in Boston gently asserted Telemann’s significance by placing him squarely in opposition to the Baroque master himself. In their somewhat curiously titled program, “Alpha and Omega,” Les Bostonades alternated Bach trio sonatas and Telemann quartets in an effort to highlight the distinctive approaches of each composer. Nor was this exactly “mainstream” Bach and Telemann; the Bach pieces were arrangements of three of the Organ Sonatas while the Telemann works were not his popular “Paris” quartets but rather his lesser-known ones with the same TWV number.
All the same, I couldn’t help wondering whether “Telemann vs. Bach” was a legitimate musical juxtaposition or a gimmicky comparison. The supposedly contentious nature of the Bach/Telemann pairing was further emphasized when violinist Sarah Darling turned to the audience after the first piece and encouraged active participation, urging us to join the “debate” and choose a “winner.” A bit contrived? Perhaps, but the pairings did highlight the stylistic differences between the two composers and asked us to grapple with issues we might otherwise overlook. We tend to think of Bach’s music as rigorously demanding, academic, and “serious,” while Telemann’s pieces are charming, accessible, and (dare I say) a little superficial. This program challenged those notions.
The evening began with Telemann’s Concerto for Strings in A Major (TWV 43:A4) and featured Sarah Darling and Megumi Stohs Lewis (violins), Emily Rideout (viola), Rebecca Shaw (cello) and Akiko Enoki Sato (harpsichord). While the piece was full of imaginative and whimsical playing from the outset, it was clear that the players really hit their stride in the final Allegro. It was as if the dial had been turned up a notch: the group performed with energy and enthusiasm, not to mention wit (a particularly playful transition in the cello elicited a few chuckles from the audience).
Originally written for organ, Bach’s Trio Sonata in D minor (BWV 527) featured a pared-down ensemble of two violins, cello, and harpsichord. The thinner texture highlighted the interplay between violinists Sarah Darling and Megumi Stohs Lewis; in the Andante I particularly enjoyed certain bow-strokes that seemed to emphasize expressiveness over sheer beauty. The players brought out the achingly beautiful suspensions in the Adagio e dolce and delivered a wonderful ending that seemed to simply evaporate into the hall. The Vivace found the upper voices weaving extensive filigree with a light touch as the movement modulated its way back to D minor.
The Concerto for Recorder and Strings (TWV 43:a3) brought Héloïse Degrugillier (recorder) on stage for the first time that evening. She played with a beautiful limpid tone and phrased the long lines of the Adagio and the lively Allegro superbly. In the following Adagio the players captured a mood of serenity, supported by sensitive accompaniment in the cello and harpsichord. The Vivace allowed each of the solo instruments to sing in virtuosic cadenza-like displays. While Degrugillier handled very difficult passages with ease and aplomb, Darling stole the show with gutsy, imaginative barriolage at a tempo teetering on the edge of comfort.
I was happy to see Bach’s Trio Sonata in C Major (BWV 529) arranged for violin, viola, and cello, offering violist Emily Rideout a chance to come to the fore. While the contrapuntal Allegro was full of energy, Darling and Rideout complemented each other particularly well in the Largo, weaving long lines and melding smoothly into each others’ sounds. Unfortunately, I felt the final Allegro didn’t work as well as it could have because of different approaches to bow strokes. The contrast in approaches (only highlighted by the extensive imitative writing) somewhat detracted from the overall unity of the work.
Next came Telemann’s Quartet in G minor (TWV 43:g4) which was a lively, witty romp. The Allegro was flashy and fast-paced, tempered by an Adagio that hinted at greater depth. The final Allegro felt brilliantly tossed-off; Darling’s panache and Degrugillier’s incisive, articulate playing made the whole thing sparkle.
While the Telemann’s Concerto in D major (TWV 43:D4) was the most unfamiliar, I also found it to be the most interesting piece programmed that night. Written early in his career, it reflects both French and Italian stylistic influences. The last Allegro was full of lightness and verve and had several audience members tapping their feet.
We were treated to an encore of a lively Bourrée, rollicking and full of abandon.