12 Fantasias in 7 Questions: Ashley Solomon’s New Telemann Disc
Hailed by the Guardian as an articulate, buoyant delight, Ashley Solomon’s brand new disc of G. P. Telemann’s 12 fantasias for solo flute was released in August 2017. The CD features 3 different flutes (including 2 unique original eighteenth-century instruments) and recently entered the official UK charts at No. 4 in the Specialist Classical Chart and No. 12 in the Classical Artist Chart. Revoice! was absolutely delighted to have the opportunity of asking Ashley about the fantasias, historical flutes, and this exciting new recording. The CD is out now on Channel Classics, and can be purchased here.
What do you think it is about the fantasia genre that captured Telemann's imagination and inspired him to write fantasia collections not only for flute but also for violin, viola da gamba, and harpsichord?
As a composer, Telemann was fascinated by all musical genres from large-scale operas and cantatas to collections of chamber and solo works. He was also astonishingly prolific as a composer, writing in almost every style that was popular in the eighteenth century. He invested considerable time and effort in learning to play the majority of instruments for which he composed, so it is not altogether surprising that collections of fantasias exist for a number of his favourite instruments. As a direct result of this engagement with and understanding of each particular instrument's inherent nature, he wrote intuitively and demonstrated a clear understanding of which musical gestures are best articulated on each instrument.
Telemann used the idea of fantasia in the sense which J. G. Walther defined in his Musikalische Lexicon of the 1730s: ‘The expression of a person with good taste who plays after his own invention, without paying too much attention to certain limitations of the tactus.’ Thus he was able to express himself with an enormous amount of freedom in these collections of unaccompanied fantasias. Though melody tended to be the main vehicle for musical expression in the eighteenth century, Telemann did not seem content in these fantasias to rely on melodic interest or rhythmic variety alone. His flute works offer the listener one of the fundamental characters of baroque aesthetics - illusion, often creating the impression that we are hearing not one but two flutes. He achieves this sense of false polyphony by rapid alternation of notes and motifs in the high and low registers, giving the illusion of a conversation between two distinct characters.
The number of movements varies considerably throughout the set; some are short da chiesa sonatas while others consist of sections which flow into one another and a number of fantasias begin with short introductory movements and thus have an undeniably improvisational character.
Telemann’s twelve flute fantasias remain a challenge for today’s players, as they were in the eighteenth century. He left us some of the most inventive, musically original baroque music for solo flute, covering the widest possible range of expression in the shortest amount of time, and designed for both performance and instruction.
Could you tell us a little about the instruments you used on the CD, and how you decided which flute to use for each fantasia?
I was very fortunate to have two almost unique instruments, made in different materials (ivory and porcelain) at my disposal for this recording, together with my wooden modern copy that I have used on most of my recent recordings with Florilegium.
The ivory flute by Thomas Cahusac from 1760 (private collection) was used for fantasias nos. 6, 7, and 8. This instrument plays well in all keys and was by far my favourite instrument of the three on this recording. It has a very delicate, fragile sound in the lower register which contrasts so well with its more vibrant upper register; this is thoroughly explored in these three fantasias. I was keen to record three consecutive works to enable listeners to really get to know the instrument, hearing its potential in three different keys (both major and minor, sharps and flats). Cahusac worked from around 1755 in London. Of Huguenot extraction, he was a music publisher and musical instrument maker, and was in business from 1755-98, advertising flutes, violins, viols, various keyboard, and other instruments.
The most unique instrument on this recording is of course the so called ‘royal flute’ made by the German Meissen company of porcelain, also dated 1760, and held in the Royal Collection Trust. I used this instrument for fantasias nos. 4, 5, and 9. This instrument is very idiosyncratic and is particularly heavy, making it tricky to play. The intonation is also rather unstable so I had to select the keys carefully to get the most from the instrument. The sound is delightfully bright, and the resonance is so alive that it almost feels like its overtones are similar to a modern flute. This white porcelain flute is decorated with floral swags spiralling around the body. It has three interchangeable pieces known as ‘corps de rechange' which enable the instrument to be played at different pitches. These, together with the headjoint and footjoint (in two parts), have gilt mounted finger holes, joints, sockets, end cap, and key. The instrument once belonged to King George III, who played the flute proficiently and possibly took this flute with him to Kew in February 1789 whilst recovering from a bout of delirium or porphyria. Before I was invited to play this flute for the first time, we believe King George was the last person to have played it. An identical instrument which must be by the same maker is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and these are the only two instruments of porcelain made by Meissen that we are aware of.Finally I used my modern copy of a Carlo Palanca instrument made by Martin Wenner in grenadilla wood for fantasies nos. 1, 2, 3, 10, 11, and 12.
Do you have a favourite fantasia, and if so, what is it that singles it out?
Actually I don’t really have a favourite. I have been playing these works for over 30 years and to be honest at different times I have enjoyed specific fantasies for their individual strengths. However, they all have particular characteristics that make them stand out as unique little masterpieces so it's very hard to pinpoint one as a favourite. Perhaps one of the most satisfying to play has to be the second fantasia. It always feels so complete in performance, with so many musical ideas and technical challenges.
How important is a knowledge of baroque dance forms to performing these works, and is Telemann's treatment of these forms conventional here?
A basic knowledge of baroque dance form is imperative in interpreting most instrumental music in the late seventeenth and early/mid eighteenth century. All twelve fantasies are unique in structure, each being based on the free and skilful use of different forms. Whilst every movement has a simple Italian tempo indication (Allegro, Vivace, Largo, Andante, Presto, etc.), Telemann achieves an extraordinary range of expression, partly by alluding to various musical forms/dances which were employed in instrumental music of the eighteenth century, and whilst he might be accused of being conventional in his treatment of these dance forms, he adds his own unique character which make them unmistakably Telemannesque! He includes seven fugues (enjoying the challenge of composing imitative polyphony for the solo flute), a chaconne or passacaille (in which the three-bar bass theme is heard with variations twelve times within this short 54-bar movement), a French overture, and numerous common dances, although they are not specifically named. These include an allemande, courante, sarabande, rondeau, gavotte, menuet, bourrée, gigue, and passepied, as well as several rustic dances.
What are some of your favourite recordings of the Telemann flute fantasias?
I grew up with two particular recordings of these works on the baroque flute that made a lasting impression. The first was Bart Kuijken’s recording on the Accent label from 1978. He plays these works on a lovely G. A. Rottenburgh instrument from around 1740 and the sound is spectacular. Then just as I graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, Masahiro Arita released his recording of the fantasias on a Thomas Stanesby Junior flute from around 1725 on the Denon label. This recording is overflowing with musical gestures and ideas, and by the end of the recording, you feel that the Thomas Stanesby flute is a close personal friend. As a baroque wind specialist it is rare these days to have access to original instruments, and although I have always dreamed of being able to record on original instruments, until this recording, I had not managed to realise this ambition. And then two unique original flutes come along (like the 82 bus!!)
Have you ever performed all 12 fantasias in a concert, and if not would you consider it?
I have performed all 12 a couple of times, but I’m not sure of the value of this as a concert experience. More recently, I have combined a number of them in solo recitals together with J. S. Bach’s partita in a minor and C. P. E. Bach’s solo sonata in the same key. For me this is much more satisfying to play and I hope more interesting for the audience to listen to. I present 6 fantasias in this way, hopefully leaving the audience wanting to hear the other 6, which they can of course do if they buy or download the new CD!
Finally, could you characterise each of the 12 fantasias with one word?
1 - introduction
2 - satisfying
3 - energetic
4 - conventional
5 - spontaneity
6 - expressivity
7 - Bon gout (sorry that’s 2 words!)
8 - polyphony
9 - galant
10 - melancholy
11 - virtuosity
12 - fantasy