Compared to his contemporaries like Bach & Handel, Georg Philipp Telemann is not as well-known today, though highly regarded and indeed prolific in his day. Telemann's collection of "Twelve Fantasias for Viola da Gamba Solo" were thought lost until 2015 when they and other works were discovered in an archive. Following their discovery these works have caused some excitement in classical music circles and have been performed and recorded several times. However this album is their first recording on a modern Viola, so in that sense it is a Premiere (and already award-winning) recording. Even in Telemann's time the fretted Viola da Gamba range had been largely supplanted by the string instruments we know today. The modern Viola is a different instrument in many respects, and Bryła has transcribed the original works to be playable on the modern instrument yet retaining their musical essence. Bryła is the winner of numerous prizes in violin, viola, and chamber music competitions, and brings all that expertise to this recording project.
In terms of sonic character, the immediate comparison is likely to be Bach's Suites for unaccompanied Cello or his solo Violin works. However the musical character is nothing like the tightly composed Baroque Dance Suites with their strict rules. These Fantasias or Fantasies are a free-flowing stream of consciousness, perhaps closer to Bach's Toccatas or his sons' Fantasias for keyboard. The viola being largely a monophonic instrument, we are certainly not talking about the counterpoint often associated with the Baroque period. Having said that there's plenty of double-stopping and statement and response gestures. Our other typical association for this era is ornamentation (albeit most commonly on non-sustaining instruments), and indeed some performers pepper their renditions with ornamentation as well as a degree of improvisation. Bryła wisely avoids these types of decoration for a fairly straight interpretation with trills used only in moderation, letting the unadorned music speak for itself. Without these two identifying features of Baroque character, the music becomes somehow more timeless.
Although Telemann's Fantasias are largely unconstrained in composition terms, they are mostly 3 movement works so they have an outward appearance similar to short suites or sonatas, especially since the middle movement is generally slower. These movements are typically 1 to 3 minutes in length, and the movements in the same home key allow a variety of tempos and characters, like three contrasting preludes. Indeed the character can sometimes change significantly within a single movement. Across the set of Fantasias the range of moods can vary from the contemplative and soul-searching through to lively and energised. This spectrum of moods gives individual Fantasias a sense of balance, and indeed the set of 12 as a whole. (Telemann seemed to like cycles of Fantasias, also composing a set of 12 for Flute, a set for violin and no less than 36 such works for keyboard.) There is a lot to digest across the set as a whole, and the album demands repeat listening.
The whole thing is performed and recorded with the utmost care and an incredible attention to detail. The SACD recordings will only be appreciated by those with the right equipment, and CD quality will suffice for most people. It is incredible to think these works were completely lost until relatively recently, and Bryła brings them alive to new audiences, particularly since the modern Viola makes these works more accessible to musicians and more relatable to audiences. The final track on the album is an arrangement of one of Telemann's Violin Fantasias by Florian Bryła, the Violist's grandfather. This is a nice touch and indicates his level of personal investment in the whole project. For the many listeners unable to attend a performance of these works, Bryła's complete mastery of the material and tireless devotion to this project must be applauded. The album has been released on the Prelude Classics label, and on their website you can preview individual tracks and purchase the music in two editions.