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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Flute Sonatas

[I] "à Cembalo obligato e Travers solo"
Peter Holtslag, transverse flute; Ketil Haugsand, harpsichord
rec: March 2014, Aumühle (D), Evangelische Kirche
Aeolus - AE-10246 (© 2016) (64'14")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

[II] "Sonatas for Flute and Harpsichord"
Pauliina Fred, transverse flute; Aapo Häkkinen, harpsichord, lute-harpsichorda, clavichordb
rec: March 5 - 6 & May 4 - 5, 2015, Vihti kirko
Naxos - 8.573376 (© 2016) (70'17")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata in C (BWV 1033)a; Sonata in E (BWV 1035) [II]b; Sonata in e minor (BWV 1034) [II]; Sonata in E flat (BWV 1031); Sonata in g minor (BWV 1020) [I]; Sonata in A (BWV 1032); Sonata in b minor (BWV 1030)


The chamber music of Johann Sebastian Bach can be divided into four categories. The first is music for a melody instrument without accompaniment. This consists of the sonatas and partitas for violin, the suites for cello and a single partita for the transverse flute. The second category comprises sonatas for a melody instrument and basso continuo; Bach composed such pieces for both the violin and the transverse flute. The third category is closely connected to the second: instead of playing the basso continuo the harpsichord has an obbligato part. Most of Bach's chamber music falls into this category, with sonatas for harpsichord and flute, violin and viola da gamba respectively. Lastly he composed a small number of trio sonatas. An important genre in his time was the quartet, but Bach did not contribute to it.

Two instruments play a key role in his chamber music: the flute and the violin. It is notable that whereas Bach composed several concertos for violin - some of which he arranged later for the harpsichord - as well as for members of the oboe family, he never wrote a flute concerto. The main parts in larger-scale pieces are in the 5th Brandenburg Concerto, the so-called Triple Concerto and the 2nd orchestral overture. In contrast Bach hardly ever used the oboe in his chamber music (the only piece being the Trio in F, BWV 1040)); here he seems to have preferred the transverse flute. This instrument became particularly popular - to some extent at the cost of the recorder - from the 1720s onward.

The flute was especially popular among amateurs. Georg Philipp Telemann was a prolific composer of music for dilettantes, and this explains the many pieces for flute or with a flute part in his oeuvre, many of which were printed. The Essercizii Musici is one of the most famous examples of a collection of such sonatas. In contrast, Bach did not compose for amateurs, but for professional players. This explains why none of his chamber music compositions were ever published. With the exception of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto, most of Bach's flute music seems to date from his time in Leipzig, and some of them may have been intended for the concerts of the Collegium Musicum. A further indication that Bach turned to the flute after his move to Leipzig is the regular use of the instrument in chorale cantatas from 1724; these parts are often of a virtuosic nature.

Each of the four categories mentioned above includes one or more pieces for the flute. The Partita in a minor (BWV 1013) is an example of a piece without accompaniment. The Sonata in e minor (BWV 1034) and the Sonata in E (BWV 1035) are scored for flute and bc, whereas two further sonatas are for obbligato keyboard and flute: the Sonata in b minor (BWV 1030) and the Sonata in A (BWV 1032). Lastly, the Sonata in G (BWV 1039) and the Sonata in c minor from the Musicalisches Opfer (BWV 1079) represent the genre of the trio sonata.

The two discs reviewed here confine themselves to the pieces with basso continuo and with obbligato keyboard. However, both also include a piece of doubtful authenticity. Pauliina Fred and Aapo Häkkinen recorded the Sonata in E flat (BWV 1031 for harpsichord and transverse flute and the Sonata in C (BWV 1033) for flute and bc. The former is often attributed to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, although the sources - in the latter's hardwriting - mention Johann Sebastian as the composer. It has also been suggested that it may be the result of a cooperation between father and son. BWV 1033 has also come down to us in a copy from CPE Bach's pen, and again it is attributed to the father. There has been a suggestion that it may originally have been intended for unaccompanied flute. CPE Bach may later have added a basso continuo part, probably as part of his musical education. These two sonatas are also included by Peter Holtslag and Ketil Haugsand and in addition they offer a recording of the Sonata in g minor (BWV 1020. In this case not only its authenticity is questioned; there is also no unanimity in regard to the instrumentation. Is it for flute or rather for violin? Both instrumentations are available in recordings. Holtslag, in his liner-notes, argues in favour of the flute: "[The] solo part never descends lower than d' (the lowest note on the transverse flute of the time) and (...) there are no double stops. Moreover, would Bach have written a violin sonata without the use of the G-string?"

The sonatas for obbligato keyboard and flute are certainly the most 'unconventional', so to speak. Whereas the trio sonata had its roots in the 17th century, the sonata for keyboard and a melody instrument was a product of the second quarter of the 18th century. Bach himself contributed to the genre with the two flute sonatas recorded here, but also the six sonatas for keyboard and violin and the three for keyboard and viola da gamba. I already mentioned Telemann: his Essercizii Musici includes several sonatas for obbligato keyboard and either flute, recorder, oboe or viola da gamba; interestingly they also include a basso continuo part. Sonatas with an obbligato keyboard part were especially popular at the court in Dresden. Christoph Schaffrath was connected to the court of Frederick the Great, when he was still Crown Prince of Prussia, and later his sister Anna Amalia; he composed a considerable number of such sonatas. It is quite possible that many such sonatas were originally conceived as trio sonatas and later reworked as sonatas with an obbligato keyboard part. This procedure is documented in CPE Bach's oeuvre and the same may have been the case in his father's. That is the reason that some scholars and performers believe that the obbligato parts give us some idea of the way Johann Sebastian worked out basso continuo parts. The result is a more 'concertante' style of basso continuo playing.

Both recordings reviewed here have their merits. I like the sensitive tone and differentiated playing of Peter Holtslag and the overall intimate interpretation in which Ketil Haugsand is a relatively moderate performer of the basso continuo part. I have not heard any new approaches to the repertoire. I would have liked a more differentiated treatment of the tempi; sometimes a slight slowing down or speeding up would have created a little more tension. The opening andante from the Sonata in C (BWV 1033 is a bit too slow; it is more an adagio than an andante, and here Fred and Häkkinen are more convincing. They also create a larger contrast between the two menuets which close the sonata. Overall Fred has a more robust tone, which I not always find pleasant. But she and Häkkinen here and there treat the tempi with more freedom and flexibility than Holtslag and Haugsand. That is good, but they are a bit inconsistent in this regard.

What really puts me off, however, is the regular use of a 16' in the harpsichord. Häkkinen is a great champion of this type of harpsichords; since some years he is the owner of the harpsichord of the late Igor Kipnis. Those who regularly read reviews on this site will know that I am rather sceptical about the use of a 16' foot. In addition I have to say that I just don't like the sound of the instrument, independent of the 16' stop. I find the performance of the basso continuo on the lute harpsichord (BWV 1033) and the clavichord (BWV 1035) respectively much more interesting. It would be very nice to hear Bach's chamber music - either with basso continuo or with obbligato keyboard - on such instruments, and in particular the clavichord. There is no reason to assume that Bach's sonatas were only played in public concerts of the Collegium Musicum. They may also have been played in Bach's household, and it is documented that he owned several clavichords. It could lend his chamber music new dimensions.

I don't want to express a clear preference for either of these recordings. That wouldn't make much sense anyway, as so many other recordings are available. I hope that my description gives a fairly good impression of what they have to offer. That should be enough to decide which one to investigate.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Pauliina Fred
Aapo Häkkinen
Peter Holtslag

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