July 17, 2018
XXIV Fantasie per il Flauto
For listeners who, like me, cannot count themselves as devout recorder aficionados, the twelve Telemann Fantasias for solo flute present particular challenges, despite the variety of form and idea they contain. One is that of engagement with a cycle involving a single, relatively inflexible timbre, although the recorder, with its bright, slightly acid harmonics, is a more pleasing choice for this listener than flauto traverso, particularly when the player uses a range of them, as the ever resourceful Tabea Debus does here. (The instrumentarium is meticulously detailed in the excellent multilingual accompanying booklet.)
Debus, though, goes a considerable step further in maintaining the non-specialist’s interest. Supported by the City Music Foundation, she has commissioned twelve composers to write new pieces, each piece inspired by a particular Fantasia and performed before, after, and sometimes within its model. Colliding new music with old is a worthwhile and revealing exercise. Each sets new contexts for the other. While the differences are obvious, there are also similarities between epochs. Few (if any) contemporary composers can sever their connections with the past entirely. Here the total effect is like one of those satisfyingly varied streetscapes, where no attempt has been made to unify with new, uninspired pasticcio architecture but instead the vibrant discourse possible between ancient and modern exuberantly explored.
And the range of approaches in the new pieces is truly vast. Dani Howard’s obsessive single pitch obsessive Two and a Half Minutes to Midnight, has minimalist connections, its title referring darkly to the advance of the Doomsday Clock. Alastair Penman’s jazzy Mirrored Lines comes complete with gently explosive sputatos and concealed quotes, and the wackily-titled bendy broken telemann no 3 of Oliver C Leith demands two simultaneously played recorders tuned a grinding semitone apart.
This is all fairly busy music, but it gives way to something sparer in Leo Chadburn’s touching Si la passion pour les plants exotiques, whose voice part quotes a letter of 1759 from Handel to Telemann. Fumiko Miyake’s Air retains the fast/slow alternations of Fantasia No 5’s opening movement, while an entirely different approach is taken by Max Wardener, who cleverly insinuates himself into the fabric of No 6 by subtly modifying its opening movement, leaving the fugue as is, and subsuming Telemann’s finale into his own new movement.
Arne Gieshoff’s Entr’acte infers from No 7’s French Overture that it signals the beginning of a distinct Part Two of the collection, and so provides the necessary interval music. Ronald Corp’s Meditation and Gigue effectively seizes on the leaping intervals of No 8’s opening, and again insists on a single pitch to ground the music. Moritz Eggert’s impressive Fantasia in Stereo, a genuine two-part piece scored for unusual recorders (voice-flute, g-alto, f-alto), integrates his own shapely melodic material with free quotations from Telemann’s Fantasia No 9, while, like Wardener, Misha Mullov-Abbado opts to expand his model, placing two new movements inside No 10, one a slightly unexpected homage to Ravel, the other a jazzy, improvisatory peroration. The movements of Frank Zabel’s …fizzling out… mirror those of the preceding Fantasia No 11, but, as his title suggests, bring elements of their models to a state of burn-out. And finally, the most senior composer. Colin Matthews’s Meditation after Telemann: 12 Fantasie progresses away from the original and back again in an intentionally spontaneous and clearly affectionate manner.
Debus’s achievement in gathering together and then playing this material is hard to underestimate. Her eloquence of phrasing and unfailingly intelligent musicianship, together with a charismatic virtuosity rare in any branch of music making, brings life to all of this music, whatever its epoch, whatever the approach. It is a deeply gifted artist who can make listening to twenty-four solo recorder fantasias, let alone just Telemann’s twelve, such a compelling and rewarding experience.
Stephen Pettitt has worked as a music critic and journalist for The Times, the Evening Standard and many other national and musical publications, and in several other musical capacities, including as Director of Music at Benslow Music. He is a Trustee of the London Handel Festival and the Maldon Festival, and currently writes for The Sunday Times.