musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Joseph BODIN DE BOISMORTIER (1689 - 1755): Chamber music with flute(s)

[I] "Concertos for Five Flutes"
Stephen Schultz, transverse flute

rec: [n.d., n.p.]
Dorian - DSL 90803 (© 2008) (48'21")

[II] "Six Sonates op. 91"
Ursula Dütschler, harpsichord, Douglas Worthen, transverse flute

rec: Jan 9 - 16, 2006, Culemborg (Neth), Oud-Katholieke Kerk
musica omnia - mo0307 (© 2010) (61'33")

[I] Concerto in G, op. 15,1; Concerto in a minor, op. 15,2; Concerto in D, op. 15,3; Concerto in b minor, op. 15,4; Concerto in A, op. 15,5; Concerto in e minor, op. 15,6 [1]
[II] Sonata in D, op. 91,1; Sonata in g minor, op. 91,2; Sonata in G, op. 91,3; Sonata in e minor, op. 91,4; Sonata in A, op. 91,5; Sonata in c minor, op. 91,6 [2]

Sources: [1] VI Concertos, op. 15, 1727; [2] Sonates, op. 91, c1741/42

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier was one of the most prolific and versatile composers in France in the first half of the 18th century. By composing music which was pleasant to the ear and not too difficult to perform he was able to earn a good living and remain independent all his life. In a time when nearly every composer was at the service of a court, a city or a church, he was an exception. It brought him much criticism, as his music was considered too easy and rather superficial. Boismortier didn't care: "I make money", was his simple reply. He published 101 collections with an opus number. In addition his oeuvre contains some collections without an opus number as well as motets and operas. Boismortier also wrote two treatises about the transverse flute and the descant viol (both lost). This shows that he was an exponent of the Enlightenment which aimed at increasing the knowledge of, in particular, the bourgeoisie. Providing them with music which they could play properly was part of that. In that respect one could compare Boismortier with someone like Georg Philipp Telemann.

Boismortier wrote music for almost any instrument played in his time, but he seems to have had a preference for the transverse flute, as about half of his oeuvre contains of pieces for the flute, or at least playable at the flute. It is rather surprising, considering the amount of music he has written, that some of his opuses have been recorded several times, whereas others are still waiting to be recorded. The collections on the two discs to be reviewed here, are among Boismortier's most popular. To date there are at least three recordings of the six concertos opus 15, this new one included. And the disc with the sonatas opus 91 is at least the fourth on period instruments in the catalogue. It is probably understandable that performing artists don't know exactly what is on the market. But the record companies should know and probably should have suggested to them to turn to another opus instead.

The popularity of the concertos opus 15 is understandable. Boismortier may have written music which is nice to listen to, these concertos are much more than that. Although he wasn't the first to write music for melody instruments without basso continuo, such a scoring was quite rare, and certainly for no less than five instruments. Two aspects are particularly noteworthy. First of all, the term concerto suggests Italian influence. That is indeed noticeable in these pieces, in particular the influence of Vivaldi, whose music was very popular in France at the time. In the last movements of the Concertos 1 and 5 Boismortier even turns suddenly to the minor in the closing episode, as Vivaldi often did. But there is also French influence, especially in the slow movements. The second feature is that Boismortier indicates that the concertos can be performed with a basso continuo. To that end he added figures to the fifth flute part, which can be realised by a harpsichord. The fifth part takes the role of a bass anyway, as it is lower than the others and is often doubled by the fourth flute.

When I received the disc I looked for the names of the players who were performing these concertos. But I found out that all parts are played by Stephen Schultz himself. The ensemble has been replaced here by the recording studio. Making a disc is considerably cheaper this way, I assume. This opens perspectives for a recording industry which goes through hard times. String quartets recorded by three or even two players, orchestral works with just one player for every section of the orchestra. Or what about opera singers singing duets with themselves? (Don't tell them, they might like the idea ...)

I find it hard to take this seriously. I know that a studio recording can never replace a live performance, but recording an ensemble piece with just one player is ridiculous. Pieces like these are meant to be played by several people, with their own instruments, their own style of playing, their own personality, joining each other and adapting to each other. This recording is artificial. If the performance was really outstanding I probably could live with it. But it is not. The playing is too rigid and too straight. I have compared several tracks with two other recordings: Barthold Kuijken et al (Accent) and the soloists of the Concert Spirituel (Naxos). Both are superior to Stephen Schultz' performance in particular because the articulation is more differentiated and the treatment of dynamics much more subtle. Those performances breathe and have a natural flow, whereas Schultz' recording is mechanical. The recorded sound is also unsatisfying: I have listened to all three with headphones, and in the recordings on Accent and Naxos there is much more true ensemble in the sound spectrum, whereas in the Dorian recording the parts are too independent.

The disc comes without a booklet. It should be available as a download from the label's site. But as I couldn't find anything I have asked for it, and it was sent to me by e-mail. It was added that the site was still under construction. Apparently that is still the case as recently I was unable to find another booklet. This is not the way to treat customers.

The second disc is devoted to a collection of six sonatas for harpsichord and transverse flute which were published in 1741. That same year Jean-Philippe Rameau published his Pièces de clavecin en concert. Both were probably inspired by the sonatas for harpsichord and violin opus 3 by Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville which appeared in 1734. The novelty of that opus was the independence of the harpsichord which was no longer reduced to playing the basso continuo. Like in Rameau's pieces for harpsichord with additional parts for violin and viola da gamba (or alternative instruments) Boismortier has written a harpsichord part with an additional part for the flute. This opus 91 is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, despite some previous collections of music for a concertante harpsichord and a treble instrument, Boismortier's sonatas are groundbreaking, and it shows that there is more in his oeuvre than pleasing melodies. More evidence of that - and that is the second reason why this collection is interesting - is the character of the harpsichord part. It is no less virtuosic than Rameau's harpsichord part in the Pièces de clavecin en concert or the suites by Forqueray or Duphly. Boismortier makes use of several techniques which were becoming fashionable, like the crossing of the hands, especially known from the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Boismortier may have composed mainly to serve dilettantes, the harpsichord parts of his opus 91 are definitely not suitable for average amateurs. That may well be the reason these sonatas are regularly recorded.

Ursula Dütschler, a Swiss-born keyboard player who now lives in the Netherlands, and the American flautist Douglas Worthen, a regular member of the Handel & Haydn Society, deliver very fine performances. The harpsichord part is excellently executed, with panachee and the right amount of freedom, for instance in the addition of ornaments. Worthen produces a fine sound on his beautiful flute which was made by Richard Potter sr in London around 1755. Although the musicians are mentioned in the wrong order at the title page of the booklet, the balance between the instruments in the recording is right. These are very lively and highly entertaining interpretations which should give every lover of baroque chamber music much to enjoy.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Stephen Schultz
Douglas Worthen

CD Reviews