The official protagonist of this recording is neither Telemann, whose two surviving sets of twelve fantasies, respectively for unaccompanied violin (1735) and transverse flute (1732-3), each fit onto a single CD, nor Peter Sheppard Skærved, who plays them alike on violin, but the instrument itself, preserved in the collection of the Royal Academy of Music, London. I must admit that although this violin by Andrea Amati is described in the accompanying notes as possessing ‘a rich tonal palette that is rarely surpassed’, I find its tone somewhat nasal. Part of the reason may be an over-close recording, a factor also suggested by the often audible accidentally brushed strings that do neither the violinist nor the listener any favours.
Each of Telemann’s sets is masterly in its own way. The one for violin is the more regular in structure and in fact is not too distant in design, technical requirements and expression from the three sonatas from J. S. Bach’s set for unaccompanied violin. In other words, these violin fantasies are ‘readable’ as sonatas of fairly conventional type. Less so the flute fantasies, which are truer to their title, being freer, more continuous and also more concise (doubtless for good practical reasons).
As one would expect, Telemann’s violin fantasias are less severely contrapuntal, less technically ambitious (and imaginative), less intense, less economical thematically and less grand in their sweep than their counterparts by J. S. Bach, but there is another, important difference: in the spirit of the advancing galant age, they are less reliant on motor rhythms and exploit very subtle (to the unsympathetic, finicky) rhythmic differences, such as between triplet semiquavers and a semiquaver followed by two demisemiquavers. This is even truer of the flute fantasies.
Here, an immediate question arises: why not play the flute fantasies on a flute, co-opting a second player? Sheppard Skærved gives no adequate answer. He relates how the flute fantasies, which he encountered first, proved inspirational to him as a violinist, although that fact in itself hardly justifies playing them on his own instrument. He refers to the widespread poly-instrumentalism of Telemann’s day (of which Telemann himself provided an outstanding example), but does not explain how mastering (and presumably also possessing) several instruments can be equated with appropriating the repertories of several instruments for just one instrument.
Finally, he argues for a similarity between the baroque flute and the violin by pointing out that the boundaries of the first instrument’s practical compass, d’ and e”, match open strings of the second. Hence, in his view, Telemann has ‘aspects of the violin’ at the back of his mind when writing for the flute, a fact that by implication would make performance of the flute fantasies by the violin more acceptable. I would certainly not argue in absolute terms against the substitution of one instrument by another if this is both successful at a pragmatic level and conditioned by necessity, but here I do not think either justification applies.
In many respects, Sheppard Skærved’s performance is solid and accomplished. His Achilles’ heel, however, is the treatment of rhythm. Where strict tempo is demanded, there is too much rubato, and the music loses momentum. Where the rhythm is intricate, he sometimes rides roughshod over fine but vital distinctions, while the slowness with which he arpeggiates many chords (even dyads, where there is no technical necessity for spreading), plays havoc with tempo and phrasing.
When he adopts a ‘strict tempo’ approach, as in the rollicking, giga-like finale of the fourth violin fantasy, the result can then be convincing and even magical. The general point is that in music (particularly, single-line music) performed by one player it is all too easy to internalise the rhythmic structure of the music in a purely abstract way and forget that, for the listener with no score to follow, a relatively strict observance of notated rhythm may be needed in order to make aural sense.
If this recording left me in the end rather unsatisfied regarding the ‘Great Violins’ project and Sheppard Skærved’s choice of repertoire and style of interpretation, I have emerged more impressed than ever by Telemann. How remarkable that this most prolific composer of all should have repeated himself – both literally and figuratively – so little, and that in every corner of his diverse output jewels of invention blaze forth.