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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Flute Sonatas

[I] "Sonates pour flūte"
Hugo Reyne, recorder; Emmanuelle Guigues, viola da gamba; Pierre Hantaļ, harpsichord

rec: Dec 5 - 7, 2006 & April 21 - 23, 2007, Lourmarin (Vaucluse), Temple
Mirare - MIR 038 (© 2009) (70'11")

[II] "a due per flauto e cembalo"
Dorothee Oberlinger, recorder; Christian Rieger, harpsichord

rec: Jan 24 - 27, 2005, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Sendesaal Funkhaus)
marc aurel edition - MA 20035 (© 2006) (75'19")

[III] "Reflexio - Sonates pour flūte"
Maria Tecla Andreotti, transverse flute; Christophe Coin, viola da gamba; Sergio Azzolini, bassoon; Jan-Willem Jansen, harpsichord, lute-harpsichord

rec: [n.d.], Lauenen (Swi.)
Laborie Records - LC04 (© 2006) (58'51")

[I] Sonata in g minor (BWV 1030b); Sonata in C (BWV 1033) (transp to F); Sonata in e minor (BWV 1034) (transp to g minor); Sonata in E (BWV 1035) (transp to F); Suite in c minor (BWV 997) (transp to d minor)
[II] Partita in a minor (BWV 1013) (transp to c minor); Prelude, fugue and allegro in E flat (BWV 998); Sonata in E flat (BWV 525) (transp to G); Sonata in c minor (BWV 1017); Sonata in b minor (BWV 1030); Sonata in E (BWV 1035)
[III] Sonata in b minor (BWV 1030); Sonata in e minor (BWV 1034); Sonata in E (BWV 1035); Sonata in G (BWV 1039/1027)

Johann Sebastian Bach and the recorder is a difficult issue. The composer hasn't done today's recorder players any favours. Sure, his oeuvre contains some wonderful parts for the recorder, like in the Brandenburg Concertos, and in some of his vocal works. The two parts for recorder in the so-called Actus Tragicus are among the most beautiful and expressive ever written. But otherwise Bach hasn't given much to play: no solo concertos and no sonatas. So if recorder players want to play Bach - and who wouldn't want to play Bach - they have to start arranging what Bach has written for other instruments. This mostly includes transposition to other keys. Some arrangements are fairly convincing, others are not. This review concentrates on two recent recordings of music by Bach played on recorder. In addition I am reviewing a disc with sonatas by Bach which are mostly played as they were conceived, on the transverse flute.

The sonatas for transverse flute are the most logical choice for recorder players. They usually don't have to do too much to make them playable on the recorder, and they are mostly more idiomatic than pieces which were originally written for, for instance, the violin.

In his recording Huge Reyne plays four sonatas for transverse flute. Bach's corpus of flute sonatas is less organised than his sonatas for keyboard and violin or the suites for cello solo. They were never published and there are also differences in the scoring. The Schmieder catalogue contains six sonatas for transverse flute solo, three with basso continuo (BWV 1033-1035) and three with obbligato harpsichord (BWV 1030-1032). The seventh sonata, catalogued as BWV 1020, is now generally considered to be written by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. But even among the six remaining sonatas there are some whose authenticity is not established. One of them is the Sonata in E flat (BWV 1031), which could be written by again Carl Philipp Emanuel or by Johann Joachim Quantz. Hugo Reyne has left it out and also the Sonata in A BWV 1032, because a part of this sonata is missing. Interesting is the Sonata BWV 1030 which he is played in a version for keyboard and a treble instrument; the latter part is missing from the autograph. It is played here by what is called a flauto d'amore. In addition we hear the Suite in c minor (BWV 997) which was composed for either harpsichord or lute, and there are suggestions it could originally have been written for a treble instrument and basso continuo. Only the second section, a fugue, is in three parts and here the harpsichord takes an obbligato role.

It is in particular this piece and the version of BWV 1030 which make this disc interesting. In general I find the performances by Hugo Reyne quite good. The tempi are mostly well-chosen, although the andante of the Sonata BWV 1030 is a bit slow. Likewise the second movement (allegro) of the Sonata BWV 1035 could have been played a bit faster. At the end of this movement there are some strange ornaments which break up the rhythm of the piece. But these are only minor blots on a otherwise fine performance. I liked the prelude of the Suite in c minor which is given a very speech-like performance in which the key points is given special attention to. The rhythmic pulse is well realised by the continuo players Emmanuelle Guiges and Pierre Hantaļ.
It is a nice gesture that Reyne and Hantaļ dedicate this disc to Frans Brüggen and Gustav Leonhardt, "whose influence on us is still untouched by time", as Reyne writes in the booklet.

Dorothee Oberlinger and Christian Rieger have made a more various choice from Bach's oeuvre. Like Reyne and his colleagues they play the Sonata BWV 1030 - here in the commonly played version - and the Sonata BWV 1035. The disc opens with the Sonata in E flat (BWV 525), one of Bach's trio sonatas for organ. That is not a surprising choice, as these sonatas are often played with instruments and bc, since their structure almost ask for such a scoring. The Partita in a minor (BWV 1013) is an equally logical choice, in contrast to one of the sonatas for keyboard and violin. I think Dorothee Oberlinger is technically a most impressive player whose virtuosity clearly comes to the fore on this disc. But I am missing the speech-like interpretations Hugo Reyne is delivering as there is a lack of dynamic accents. I also consider some tempi too fast. The second section of the third movement (gigue) of the Sonata in b minor (BWV 1030) is played way too fast. It is almost a caricature and I just find it unmusical. The opening andante of this sonata is also pretty fast, but what is bothering me most is that the players seem to speed up the tempo while playing. The rhythmic pulse of the allegro of the Sonata in E (BWV 1035) is underexposed and as there is a lack of accents the performance is a bit superficial. The siciliana of this sonata is clearly too fast.

The Sonata in a minor (BWV 1017) is one of a set of six sonatas for keyboard and violin - in that order. The harpsichord is supposed to take the lead but here the recorder is too dominant. That is probably inevitable as the recorder is quite penetrating and blends less well with the harpsichord than the violin. The two slow movements are again too fast. In the Partita the recorder works better but here the top notes are only playable by overblowing, and as a result they are too loud and too aggressive. The Sonata BWV 525 is very well played and Christian Rieger gives a fine performance of the Prelude, fugue and allegro in E flat, which is a popular work for either harpsichord or lute.
As the programmes of these two discs are partly quite different they are no competition. As far as they contain the same pieces I prefer Reyne, as his performances are more rhetorical and the choice of tempo is more satisfying.

Let us return to the sonatas in their original form. Marie Tecla Andreotti and her colleagues - members of the Ensemble baroque de Limoges - play two of the sonatas for transverse flute and bc and one for transverse flute and obbligato harpsichord. In addition the sonata for two flutes and bc BWV 1039 is performed, but as you will gather from the tracklist it is played in a form which is different from what we usually hear. This sonata exists in two versions: BWV 1039 for two transverse flutes and bc and BWV 1027 for viola da gamba and obbligato harpsichord. In this performance these two sonatas are merged: Marie Tecla Andreotti plays the first flute part of BWV 1039, whereas Christophe Coin plays the viola da gamba part of BWV 1039. The result is a new sonata which should be considered an arrangement.

There are other aspects of this recording which makes it different from others. In the Sonatas BWV 1030 and 1034 Jan Willen Jansen is playing a lute-harpsichord (Lautenwerk). As its sound is more fragile than that of the harpsichord this causes some problems in regard to balance. I think in both sonatas the transverse flute is too dominant, and that is in particular problematic in the Sonata BWV 1030 where the harpsichord is supposed to have the lead. It doesn't really help that the viola da gamba is used to support the bass of the keyboard part. This is justified by referring to the six sonatas for keyboard and violin where Bach refers to the option to use the viola da gamba this way. But this fact alone is not a convincing argument to apply this practice in other works as well. Then why did Bach only suggest this possibility in the sonatas for keyboard and violin? In two sonatas the bassoon is involved in the realisation of the basso continuo. It is an excellent instrument for this role, in particular in pieces for loud wind instruments like the oboe or the recorder. But here it has too much presence.

The programme is certainly interesting and I have no problems with taking a different look at well-known repertoire. I also like the way the rhythm in these sonatas is realised; BWV 1034 is particularly impressive in this respect. But I am not impressed by the playing of Marie Tecla Andreotti. I don't like the slight tremolo she produces, and I sorely miss clear dynamic accents. Sometimes the phrasing is unlogical and odd, like in the andante of the Sonata in b minor (BWV 1030), whose tempo is also a bit too slow. And in the next movement (largo e dolce) there is too much staccato playing which sounds very unnatural.

I can only recommend this disc to people who would like to hear the lute-harpsichord in an ensemble rather than as a solo instrument and would like to hear this version of the Sonatas BWV 1039 and 1027. But if you look for a really satisfying performance of Bach's sonatas for transverse flute, you better look elsewhere.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Ensemble baroque de Limoges
Dorothee Oberlinger
Hugo Reyne

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