musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH: Concertos & Sonatas with recorder

[I] "Sonatas BWV 525, 527-530"
Jan Van Hoecke, recorder; Jovanka Marville, harpsichorda, fortepianob
rec: Sept 8 - 10, 2015, Bruges, Concertgebouw
Alpha - 237 ( 2016) (63'10")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata in E flat (BWV 525)a; Sonata in d minor (BWV 527)b; Sonata in e minor (BWV 528)b; Sonata in C (BWV 529)a; Sonata in G (BWV 530)a

[II] "Bach all'italiano"
Simon Borutzki, recorder; Lea Rahel Bader, cello; Magnus Andersson, lute; Clemens Flick, harpsichord, organ
rec: Oct 19 - 22, 2015, Berlin-Wannsee, Andreaskirche
Klanglogo - KL1517 ( 2016) (68'48")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Concerto in C (BWV 976); Concerto in d minor (BWV 974); Concerto in F (BWV 578); Concerto in G (BWV 973); Concerto in g minor (BWV 975); Concerto in a minor (BWV 593); Concerto in B flat (BWV 986); Italian Concerto in F (BWV 971)


Recorder players are always on the search for music to play. They all want to play Bach, but he has been not very kind to them. Only in vocal works and in two of the Brandenburg Concertos he included parts for recorder. Unlike Telemann he did not compose any sonatas for the recorder or with recorder parts. Most recorder players who want to play Bach turn to the sonatas for transverse flute. The six trio sonatas for organ which Bach composed for the education of his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann are also quite popular.

These - or rather five of them - are the subject of the disc by the Belgian recorder player Jan Van Hoecke and Jovanka Marville who plays the harpsichord and the fortepiano. By choosing the texture of the trio sonata Bach translated one of the main forms of chamber music of his time to the medium of the organ. That in itself is ample justification for a performance in then common scorings, such as two violins or flute and violin with basso continuo. Moreover, some musicologists believe that at least some movements are reworkings of trio sonatas. Other options are also possible: a performance with recorder and keyboard refers to a form of chamber music Bach seems to have preferred: the sonata for an obbligato keyboard and a melody instrument. Examples of this scoring are the six sonatas for keyboard and violin and the three sonatas for keyboard and viola da gamba. It is mostly the upper part of the trio sonatas which is played on the recorder, whereas the keyboard takes care of the two remaining parts. Jan Van Hoecke does so too, but uses various recorders: in addition to several alto recorders he plays a tenor recorder in the first movement from the Sonata in e minor. The fact that he turns to the alto recorder for the remaining movements is one of the less satisfying aspects of this disc.

The most notable feature is that in two sonatas Jovanka Marville plays the copy of a Silbermann fortepiano of 1749. It is true, as the artists write in the booklet, that Bach knew Silbermann's fortepianos, but to what extent he really embraced it is open for debate. At the time he composed his trio sonatas such instruments did not exist. From a historical angle this practice is hardly tenable. The combination of recorder - basically an instrument of the past, in particular the 17th century - and an instrument which was to play a dominant role in the next centuries, is rather odd. Together they sounded better than I expected, but I still find it rather unsatisfying.

These reservations are made up for by the fine playing of both artists. From a musical angle there is much to enjoy. I wondered why the second sonata of the set was omitted, but the liner-notes don't mention this issue.

Simon Borutzki follows a different path in his exploration of Bach's music. Rather than turn to the flute sonatas he chose Bach's own arrangements of Italian instrumental concertos. These date from the latter's time in Weimar. It was Johann Ernst, Prince of Saxe-Weimar, who was largely responsible for Bach's becoming acquainted with the Italian concerto. He was the second son of Johann Ernst IX of the Ernestine branch of the Saxon house of Wettin. In February 1711 he left for the Netherlands to further his education. In Amsterdam he heard Jan Jacob de Graaf, organist of the Nieuwe Kerk, who used to play Italian solo concertos in his own adaptations for the organ. This made such an impression on the young prince that he started to collect Italian concertos. Many of such pieces were published by Roger in Amsterdam. After his return to Weimar he started to compose concertos in that style and asked his teacher Walther and Bach - who from 1708 to 1717 was court organist - to make arrangements for organ or harpsichord. The acquaintance with the concertos Johann Ernst had in his baggage triggered Bach's interest in Italian music and he studied the concertos of Italian masters, such as Torelli, Albinoni and especially Vivaldi.

Bach arranged a number of concertos for either organ or harpsichord - the latter can be played on the organ as well - and Borutzki arranged them for recorder and basso continuo. There is no basic objection against this procedure, and it could result in interesting and worthwhile additions to the repertoire for the recorder. However, although sometimes the result is enjoyable and musically convincing, overall I am rather sceptical about these arrangements. Like Van Hoecke Borutzki sometimes uses different recorders in one piece. Most of these concertos were written for strings, sometimes with a solo part for the violin. The latter not only has a wider tessitura, which sometimes forces the recorder to a register transfer (playing notes an octave lower than notated), but is also different in character. Not all music for violin can be adapted to another medium, especially not a recorder. The same goes for the organ part: not every organ piece is suitable for the harpsichord. The largo from the Concerto in F (BWV 978) includes a sequence of chords which are completely natural to the organ, but cannot easily be translated to the harpsichord, especially because of the short duration of the instrument's sound. It would have been less problematic if Clemens Flick had arpeggiated them.

However, part of my lack of enthusiasm is due to Bortutzki's playing. He is an excellent recorder player and I have enjoyed previous recordings, but here he regularly opts for breakneck speeds which seem highly exaggerated and sound unmusical to my ears. The closing allegro from the Concerto in C (BWV 976) is an example; here the four instruments also produce too much noise. There are certainly nice moments; the Concerto in d minor (BWV 974), Bach's arrangement of a beautiful oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello, is one of the most satisfying parts of this disc. But on the whole this disc left me rather unsatisfied. It seems to me that only die-hard recorder aficionados may want to add this disc to their collection.

Johan van Veen ( 2017)

Relevant links:

Simon Borutzki
Clemens Flick
Jan Van Hoecke
Jovanka Marville

CD Reviews