By Laurence Vittes
J.S. Bach’s Six Sonatas for violin and harpsichord have been recorded more than 50 times. Georg Philipp Telemann’s sonatas for the same combination have been recorded less than five. Undaunted, American violinist, conductor, keyboardist, and educator Dorian Komanoff Bandy makes a strong case for at least a partial reset with his recording of Telemann’s half dozen sonatas for the indie jazz label Whaling City Sound.
Beautifully recorded at the WGBH studios in Boston, Massachusetts, Bandy’s performances showcase all the charms, beauties, and surprising eccentricities that Telemann’s love affair with the violin produced. He and harpsichordist Paul Cienniwa also added a bonus: the world premiere recording of Telemann’s Sonata in F-sharp minor TWV 41:fis2.
Bandy, who produced Così fan tutte in London using improvised ornamentation and cadenzas, has taught at Longy School of Music in Boston and the Colburn School in Los Angeles. Bandy is preparing to move back to the U.S. this summer. Meanwhile later this year he will be appearing in Oslo, Norway, playing Corelli and Castello violin sonatas, as well as in Cambridge and Durham in the UK.
I was intrigued by the story behind the world premiere and contacted Bandy in Glasgow, where he teaches at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
Concerning the world premiere I picture you as an Indiana Jones–type, poring romantically over dusty manuscripts in exotic foreign lands.
It’s not quite so romantic although I do spend a lot of time digging through archives looking for interesting music by unknown composers. You can imagine my surprise when I came across an unrecorded Telemann sonata in F-sharp minor in the Dresden State Archives. The sonata is a known piece: It’s listed in the catalogue of Telemann’s works, and the name “George Melante” is known to be Telemann’s anagrammatic pseudonym. Yet no violinist has gotten around to recording it yet.
What draws you to the Telemann sonatas?
One thing I like is that Telemann, unlike so many of his contemporaries, doesn’t seem to have a go-to form. Each sonata is its own piece. The first sonata in this set sounds very German, not unlike early Handel, but other sonatas show French influences, some seem to recall Corelli’s Op. 5, and others—here I’m thinking of Sonata No. 6—are so quirky and delightful they sound only like Telemann. The fact that you can’t pigeonhole these sonatas is part of the joy of playing them.
What is his violin writing like compared to Bach?
When you play Bach, especially unaccompanied Bach, you get the sense that he wasn’t interested in violinists’ technical limitations. He was writing perfect, almost abstract music, and he makes us shape ourselves and our techniques to accommodate his vision. Telemann, on the other hand, is trying to write music that will be fun to play.
How does he manage that?
First of all, by writing with the violin in mind—as he did with all the instruments he composed for. But even more, you get the impression that he’s writing not only to accommodate your technique, but your interests, and even the interests of the harpsichordist. Of course, there are a few spots where Telemann might have benefited from some specialized violinistic knowledge. The last movements of the third and fourth sonatas are incredibly awkward, probably more than he realized. But these are exceptions.
What gear did you use?
The violin is anonymous, c. 1750, probably from Innsbruck. I used two bows, both by René-William Groppe: One of them is a copy of an early 18th–century bow, the other a copy of a late 17th–century bow. We were trying to differentiate various styles, but actually on the recording they both ended up sounding the same!
Did you consider using a bigger continuo group?
Actually, I prefer to play this music with just keyboard accompaniment—especially when it’s played by someone as sensitive as Paul Cienniwa. Telemann specified that these sonatas were just for violin and harpsichord, not for the more usual “violin and bass,” which might include cello or theorbo. I have to admit that I used to love working with huge continuo teams. I once used harpsichord, organ, theorbo, and two cellists to accompany a violin sonata! We were able to “orchestrate” each bar of the bass line. But the intimacy of these Telemann sonatas make them ideal for a duo.