We are almost a year away from the 250th anniversary of the death of Georg Philipp Telemann on June 25, 1767. However, at the end of last year Brilliant Classics chose to anticipate this occasion with one of their original recordings featuring recorder virtuoso Erik Bosgraaf. The title of the album is The Recorder Sonatas, and attention is drawn to the definite article. Telemann was a prodigious composer, more so than Johann Sebastian Bach. He was also a good businessman with a creative imagination for publication projects, many of which were directed at students, teachers, and eager amateurs. His Wikipedia page does not even try to estimate the total number of his compositions; and, unlike the Bach-Werke-Verzeichis (BWV) catalog of Bach’s works, which uses sequential numbering, the Telemann-Werke-Verzeichnis uses a double numbering system, the first identifying genre and running up to 55 and the second identifying key. Thus, the index number for the very first piece on this recording is TWV 41:a4, meaning that it is chamber music for one instrument with continuo accompaniment (category 41) and is the fourth entry in A minor.
Part of Telemann’s good business sense was that any piece for an accompanied solo instrument could probably lend itself to a wide variety of instruments. It is thus unclear how many of the works in this category were explicitly composed with the recorder in mind. As a performer he could be regarded as a “professional” recorder player, particularly since he had been playing the instrument from the age of ten. One might therefore assume that many of these pieces were informed by his experience on the instrument, whether or not they were explicitly designated for that instrument. However, because his approach to marketing was so flexible, there may not be any “definitive authoritative sources” that identify which of his many works are “the” recorder sonatas.
In the absence of such a source, one must be content with a “pretty good” one. After wandering down a variety of paths through the Internet, I decided to settle on IMSLP (the International Music Score Library Project, also known as the Petrucci Music Library) as the best source to consult. There one can select Telemann from the list of composers and then click on the letter “R,” since the compositions are ordered alphabetically by title. There one finds only eleven entries, two recorder concertos, eight recorder sonatas, and one sacred cantata title. Bosgraaf’s recording includes all eight of those sonatas and one more, TWV 41:f1. The notes for the accompanying booklet acknowledge that this piece was intended for bassoon solo but also explicitly states that the bassoon part may be played, two octaves higher, on the recorder. This was one of four sonatas on the recording that Telemann had published in his music magazine, Der getreue Music-Meister (the faithful music master); and he surely knew that he had more recorder players than bassoon players as readers.
More important than what Telemann actually wrote for accompanied recorder, however, is how Bosgraaf has accounted for the nine pieces he selected. His continuo accompaniment consists only of a harpsichord played by Francesco Corti. This also seems to appeal to the business side of Telemann’s activities. It would have been easier for a soloist to get together with a keyboardist without worrying about having someone else add to the continuo with an archlute or bowed low-string instrument. Thus, at least implicitly, Bosgraaf reminds us that this music was most likely for “personal music-making,” rather than for “professional” display in a concert hall or salon.
Nevertheless, there are definitely virtuoso elements to these sonatas. If they were directed at amateurs, then Telemann was assuming that his public loved (remember the linguistic root of “amateur”) the music well enough to work at giving it an account that was at least satisfactory. This was probably a valid assumption. Leisure time may have been at a premium, but one was confronted with fewer options for how it could be spent. It was not out of the question that an amateur could also be a “faithful music master.”
On the other hand Bosgraaf and Corti are definitely not amateurs. Between the two of them, the attentive listener can take delight in their polished approach to the sorts of technical skills that the amateurs of Telemann’s day would have as aspirations. As a result this recording makes for a delightful listening experience, even if Telemann himself probably preferred “customers” more interested in playing than in listening!