Georgian Concert Society: Syrinx – Telemann: The Saxon Alternative Back

Performance space can have an impact on certain decisions a composer makes during the creative process. In our age of refined, digital recordings and finely-tuned concert environments we rarely consider the platform for which secular music was designed. Instrumental choice was a major consideration, especially if the performance was held outside. Timbral, textural and formal decisions were dictated by the choice of instrument. The delicate, intimate tone of stringed instruments was considered more suitable for indoor use compared to the robustness of wind instruments’ design and volume. Developments in the manufacture of wind instruments underlined the ensemble as being some of the most innovative – and therefore fashionable – instruments to have. During the late 17th and 18th centuries, the double reed ensemble or Hauboisten Band grew in popularity among the German nobility and became a familiar feature at various civic and courtly occasions. Its origins lay in the very musically inclined French court of Louis XIV and Germanic composers sought to stamp the ensemble with their own distinct tradition.

For Telemann, a versatile composer across secular, sacred and theatrical styles, the Hauboisten Band presented a new ensemble for experimentation. The resulting orchestral suites called Overtures or Concertos demanded a higher standard of playing from all. Imitative of string styles, Telemann’s works draw upon the tradition of baroque dances. Yet he does not seem to make any concessions in his writing for wind, demanding the same dense textures distinctive of the German High Baroque period. Variation of timbral colour came through employing different members of the oboe family, but the inclusion of natural horns alongside reed instruments was a crucial development. Horns augmented the tonal palate, and were an alternative to providing a valuable inner voice in the contrapuntal writing. An ensemble which included horns became known as the Saxon Alternative. This formation of players became the standard format for orchestral wind in 18th-century orchestras and later developed into the Classical period Harmonie ensemble utilised by Mozart and others in serenades and divertimentos.

At their January concert, Syrinx demonstrated the full potential of Telemann’s work for wind through an entertaining and enjoyable programme. Although a resolutely indoor performance, it lost nothing of the stateliness or characteristic splendour. The group took a decision to add further harmonic support with harpsichord continuo played by Dan Tidhar. A successful blend against such bombastic instruments would have been a challenge, yet Tidhar achieved subtlety of touch and registration which ghosted the harmonic texture, but did not overpower. Doubling the powerful bass line were bassoon players Inga Maria Klaucke and Sally Holman, performing on baroque versions of the instrument, but not losing any of the grounded presence in those lines.

The programme was well ordered to demonstrate the capabilities of each instrument, but Telemann’s use of horns was particularly highlighted by Syrinx’s players Helen Shillito and Kate Goldsmith. Far from being given a supporting role as harmonic filler, leading material and contrapuntal texture were entrusted to these instruments. Alongside cliché hunting calls and other typically boisterous lines, players were entrusted with leading material, including siciliano melodies in Concerto a 5 in D TWV 44:2. This clearly demonstrated the horn’s agility, often overlooked until later periods and the invention of the valve. Such independent writing would have been demanding of a player’s technique in the 18th century, especially considering that brass players were usually soldiers drafted in from local military bands and there were rarely any rehearsals for such ad hoc performances.

Other curiosities in the instrumental line-up included the use of oboe d’amore and the taille or tenor oboe. The darker and woodier tones of these historical instruments contrasted with the oboe’s chattering semiquaver passages. Belinda Paul, Ann Allen and Hanna Geisel led from these instruments. They lifted their playing through detailed articulation and were frequently exposed to demanding melodic lines with busy textures.

Throughout their performance, Syrinx presented a great example of unity and clarity as an ensemble. Their characterful playing of pictorial musical scenes brought out Telemann’s coy, theatrical writing. Rustic yet refined folk dances complete with bass drones in Overture in F TWV 44:14 Les Paysans culminated in a lively gigue, whereas courtly dramas in Overture in B-flat TWV 55:B3 played upon expressions such as La Discretion and La Grimace. A set of lively arias in Overture in C minor TWV 55:C3 highlighted witty and conversational interplay as instruments would pass contrapuntal lines between each other. Syrinx presented a well-constructed programme considering variety of ensemble, detail of interpretation and balance of repertoire.

The fourth performance of the Georgian Concert Society 2017 – 18 season took place on 20th January at St. Andrew’s and St. George’s West, Edinburgh.