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Leonard Schelb, transverse flute; Ricardo Magnus, fortepiano

rec: August 26 - 29, 2012, Kenzingen-Bombach, St. Sebastian
ambitus - amb 96 953 (© 2014) (67'42")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Johann Christoph Friedrich BACH (1732-1795): Sonata for keyboard and transverse flute in d minor (HW VIII,3/1; BR JCF B 15); Franz BENDA (1709-1786): Sonata for transverse flute and bc in e minor (L III,57); Johann Gottlieb (?) GRAUN (1703-1771), arr Ricardo Magnus: Sonata for transverse flute, viola and bc in F (GraunWV C,XV,83), arr for keyboard and transverse flute; Johann Philipp KIRNBERGER (1721-1783): Sonata for transverse flute and bc in G; Johann Joachim QUANTZ (1697-1773): Sonata for transverse flute and bc in c minor (QV 1,15)

This disc brings us to the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin around 1750. The list of musicians - often also active as composers - who were in the King of Prussia's service is impressive and reads like a Who is who of the German music scene of that time. Among them are the brothers Graun and the brothers Benda, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Joachim Quantz, Johann Philipp Kirnberger, Christoph Nichelmann and many others. However, they did not only play at and compose for the court. They were also active in the music life of bourgeois Berlin. They performed their music in the homes of the upper echelons of society and also in public concerts.

Musicologists and music lovers often find it rather hard to clearly define the time between the era of the baroque and the classical period. The fact that various terms are used to describe it - Empfindsamkeit, Sturm und Drang, the galant style - reflects the insecurity about what was characteristic of this period. Describing it merely as a period of transition hardly does justice to its very own features. One could probably say that the variety of styles is the most prominent feature of the time. In the music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, for instance, one finds traces of the Empfindsamkeit alongside elements of Sturm und Drang. What style a composer turned to could even depend on the clientele. Emanuel Bach was clearly more moderate in the keyboard music he composed for the general market than in pieces he wrote for his own performances.

The present disc is a good illustration of the stylistic variety of the time. In the sonatas by Quantz and Kirnberger, for instance, we find still some of the features of the baroque era, in which counterpoint played a major role. The latter is clearly present in both sonatas, but it is mixed with features of the galant idiom. Kirnberger was a pupil of Johann Sebastian Bach and considered him as the supreme composer. That explains his adherence to the importance of counterpoint. Whether his flute sonatas were written for and performed at Frederick's court is hard to say. Kirnberger was only in his service for a couple of years; from 1758 until his death he was in the service of Princess Anna Amalia, Frederick's sister. His music is sometimes considered rather mediocre, but having heard some of his sonatas (*) I disagree. The Sonata in G is a nice work; the opening adagio includes some traces of a recitative. It is especially Quantz' sonatas which Frederick must have loved to play, alongside pieces from his own pen. Quantz was Frederick's flute teacher and must have known exactly what met his employer's approval. It has given him a rather dubious name and it is often said that his music is superficial. But again I disagree; it highly depends on how it is performed, and fortunately his Sonata in c minor is in the best of hands here.

The Graun brothers played a significant role at the Berlin court. Carl Heinrich was a singer and was especially responsible for opera performances. Johann Gottlieb was a violinist and mostly composed instrumental music. However, Carl Heinrich also wrote instrumental works and as most of their compositions were assigned with di Graun or del Graun it is often impossible to say who composed them. These constitute a special category in the catalogue of their works. The Sonata in F is an example of such a sonata as the C indicates. It is called here a trio sonata for flute and keyboard, and has been arranged by Ricardo Magnus for obbligato keyboard and flute. That seems a little imprecise, and not quite correct. Originally it was a trio sonata for flute, viola and basso continuo. An arrangement as Magnus has carried out is in line with (JG) Graun's own practice: several trio sonatas were later turned into sonatas for keyboard and a melody instrument. That was very much in accordance with the fashion of the mid-18th century and points in the direction of the classical sonata for this kind of scoring, for instance the sonatas for keyboard and violin by Mozart. The Sonata in d minor by Johann Christoph Bach is another example of such a sonata. We know this kind of sonatas from the baroque period, such as the sonatas for keyboard and violin by Johann Sebastian Bach. But the relation between the two instruments is quite different. The sonatas of father Bach are dominated by counterpoint, but that doesn't play any role in JCF's sonata. Here the flute has the role of contributing to the expression. This sonata reflects the spirit of the Empfindsamkeit; that comes especially to the fore in the andante with its passages in the form of a recitative. Johann Christoph Friedrich is the only composer in the programme who had no ties to Berlin; for most of his life he was in the service of the court in Bückeburg.

The strongest example of the Empfindsamkeit is the Sonata in e minor by Franz Benda. He was one of the greatest violinists of his time. He was especially praised for his performances of adagios and Charles Burney noted that "scarce a passage can be found in his compositions, which is not in the power of the human voice to sing". The large majority of his compositions is written for his own instrument; only a few sonatas for the flute are known. The sonata played here shows much expression of a rather individualistic character, very different from what was common in the baroque era. Another feature is the sudden shift in emotions, one of the characteristics of the Empfindsamkeit.

The artists have given the choice of keyboard and the sound the two instruments produce as well as the performance of the basso continuo much thought. This repertoire is often played with harpsichord, and there is nothing wrong with that. It was still very much in vogue, and the fortepiano had not fully established itself as yet. However, the sources attest to the fact that it was used not only in an obbligato role but also for the realization of the basso continuo. As it is relatively soft in comparison to the harpsichord the balance between the keyboard and the flute is rather good here. That is the ideal of the performers as the title of this disc indicates: "Klangschmelze" - the blending of sounds. "[Using] the fortepiano as an accompaniment offers the possibility for the flute to show a much larger range of soft dynamics", the artists write in the booklet. The balance is also aided by the way the basso continuo is played. The artists refer to what seems to be the ultimate rule of the time: "good taste makes the difference". Here the basso continuo sometimes reduces its presence in order to make way for the flute; according to CPE Bach the accompaniment should never be on the foreground.

Leonard Schelb and Ricardo Magnus are well up to the task of performing this repertoire according to the taste of the time. This is a very fine disc with repertoire which reflects the variety in styles and tastes in the mid-18th century. I very much hope that they will continue to explore the large repertoire which is waiting to be rediscovered. In the meantime let us enjoy this disc which is well suited for repeated listening.

The booklet includes an informative essay by the artists, but unfortunately the track-list omits catalogue numbers. I have added them in the header.

(*) Kirnberger, "Sonatas for flute" - Frank Theuns et al.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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Leonard Schelb

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