musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): Sonatas for transverse flute

[I] "Flute Sonatas"
Dorothea Seel, transverse flute; Christoph Hammer, fortepiano
rec: Feb 9 - 12, 2015, Hall/Tirol, Barocker Stadtsaal
Hänssler Classic - 98.057 (2 CDs) (© 2015) (2.24'40")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

[II] "Sonatas for Flute & Basso Continuo"
Katalin Horvath, transverse flute; Thomas Platzgummer, cellod; Eva Maria Pollerus, harpsichorda, clavichordb, square pianoc
rec: Dec 2013, Basel, Kapelle Adullam
TYXart - TYX15056 (© 2015) (71'42")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, booklet & track-list

Sonata for keyboard and transverse flute in D (Wq 83 / H 505) (I); Sonata for keyboard and transverse flute in E (Wq 84 / H 506)c; Sonata for keyboard and transverse flute in G (Wq 85 / H 508) (I); Sonata for keyboard and transverse flute in G (Wq 86 / H 509) (I); Sonata for keyboard and transverse flute in C (Wq 87 / H 515) (I) Sonata for transverse flute in a minor (Wq 132 / H 562) (I); Sonata for transverse flute and bc in G (Wq 123 / H 550)ad; Sonata for transverse flute and bc in e minor (Wq 124 / H 551)a; Sonata for transverse flute and bc in B flat (Wq 125 / H 552) (I); Sonata for transverse flute and bc in D (Wq 126 / H 553) (I); Sonata for transverse flute and bc in G (Wq 127 / H 554)ad; Sonata for transverse flute and bc in a minor (Wq 128 / H 555)c; Sonata for transverse flute and bc in D (Wq 129 / H 556)ad; Sonata for transverse flute and bc in B flat (Wq 130 / H 560) (I); Sonata for transverse flute and bc in D (Wq 131 / H 561)b; Sonata for transverse flute and bc in G (Wq 133 /H 564)c; Sonata for transverse flute and bc in G (Wq 134 / H 548) (I)


The transverse flute was one of the most fashionable instruments in the 18th century. It is one of the oldest in Western music: it has its roots in Byzantium and the first iconographical evidence of its use in specific repertoire is in the manuscript of the Cantigas de Santa Maria (13th century). During the renaissance it was mostly used in ensemble. Technical developments in France in the second half of the 17th century allowed more virtuosic compositions for the flute. In the first half of the 18th century it was a typical 'conversational' instrument, played in domestic surroundings. Sonatas for flute and basso continuo, duets for two flutes and trios and quartets with a part for the flute were produced in large numbers. In Germany Georg Philipp Telemann was one of the main protagonists of such repertoire. The transverse flute figured prominently in several of his collections of chamber music, such as the Essercizii Musici and Der getreue Music-Meister.

Carl Philipp Emanuel, the second son of Johann Sebastian, started to compose for the flute at an early age, when he was still under the guidance of his father. The earliest flute composition from his pen is the Sonata in G (Wq 134) which dates from around 1735. The latest sonata is in the same key (Wq 133) and is from 1786. However, most of his works for the flute were written during his time in Berlin when he occupied the post of court harpsichordist to Frederick the Great of Prussia, a fanatical lover and player of the flute. Whether the King ever played a composition written by his harpsichordist is hard to say. Their relationship was not of the best, and Frederick's taste was probably too conservative to really appreciate what Bach created. Frederick preferred the sonatas and concertos of his flute teacher, Johann Joachim Quantz, and he himself also acted as composer.

Bach had close ties to many people from the higher echelons of society in Berlin, among them not only musicians but also artists and poets. It seems very likely that he played his many keyboard concertos in concerts in Berlin and he may have performed his flute sonatas here as well. However, with the composition of such sonatas he could also improve his standing as a composer. Only one of his flute works was ever published in his life time: the Sonata in a minor (Wq 132) for flute solo. Other works circulated in manuscript.

It is not easy to decide which works in the catalogue of Bach's oeuvre should be considered as being intended for the flute. Many pieces exist in various scorings. One sonata has come down to us in scorings for bass recorder and viola, two violins, flute and violin, bass recorder and bassoon, bassoon and viola, all with basso continuo, as well as for harpsichord with flute or violin and for two harpsichords. Various sonatas which Bach first conceived for flute and basso continuo were later adapted for obbligato harpsichord and flute. In addition there are some sonatas of dubious authenticity and two which are included in the Schmieder catalogue as compositions from the pen of Johann Sebastian (BWV 1020 and 1031). Some scholars believe that they were written by Carl Philipp Emanuel but this view is not universally shared.

This situation explains why recordings of flute sonatas by Carl Philipp Emanuel can strongly differ. The two latter sonatas were included by Barthold Kuijken and Bob van Asperen (Sony, 1993) but omitted by Dorothea Seel and Katalin Horvath. Also they did not include the Sonata in B flat (H 578) which appears in the Kuijken/Van Asperen recording. The latter's disc is called "Complete Flute Sonatas" but they omit all the sonatas for flute and bc which are recorded by Seel and Horvath. The two recordings reviewed here include several sonatas which don't appear all that often in recordings of Bach's flute sonatas, such as the Sonata in G (H 123) (Horvath, Seel) and the Sonatas in B flat (H 125 and 130) (Seel).

One of the most frequently recorded pieces is the Sonata in G (H 564) but I can't remember having heard the first movement being played so fast as by Dorothea Seel and Christoph Hammer. It has the indication allegretto which is considered a little slower than allegro; Franz Gratl, in his liner-notes, calls it "moderately fast" but apparently Dorothea Seel and Christoph Hammer have different ideas. They take 3'57"; in other recordings I noted 4'56" and 5'44" and Horvath needs even 6:34. The latter seems to slow; the truth problably is in the middle, around 5 minutes. There are quite some differences between the two recordings as far as the tempi are concerned. Generally Katalin Horvath tends to play the andantes a little too slow whereas Dorothea Seel could have taken the adagios a bit slower. She needs only 1'56" in the opening movement from the Sonata in e minor (H 551) whereas Horvath takes 2'29"; the latter seems the more appropriate tempo. Whereas Seel and Hammer play the allegretto from the Sonata in G (H 564) surprisingly fast, the closing allegro assai - an indication of a very fast tempo - from the Sonata in E (H 506) is remarkably slow. They need only 2'48" to Horvath's 4'55" but that is due to a different treatment of the repeats; as I don't have access to the score I can't check what Bach has prescribed here. But Seel and Hammer are slower than every other performance I have checked.

I have enjoyed both performances but - despite some reservations in regard to tempi - I slightly prefer Dorothea Seel. I find her the more sensitive performer who shows a very good feeling for CPE Bach's idiom. In comparison Katalin Horvath plays a little more powerful but sometimes her performance is a bit too straightforward. In the closing movement of the Sonata in E just mentioned she takes the right tempo but that goes at the cost of a clear articulation.

The accompaniment is different in regard to the instruments chosen for the basso continuo and the obbligato keyboard parts. Christoph Hammer does a fine job in both, but I am not sure that the fortepiano is the most appropriate keyboard instrument for this repertoire. He plays the copy of an instrument of Gottfried Silbermann of 1749. We are here at an early stage of the history of the fortepiano and Silbermann experimented with his instruments, especially after criticism from Johann Sebastian Bach. Nearly all of CPE Bach's flute sonatas were written before 1749 and even if one takes into account that they may still have been played in the 1750s and 1760s the harpsichord seems the most suitable instrument. In the basso continuo sonatas this fortepiano has little presence; in the opening andante from the Sonata in G (H 550) it is even hardly audible. For historical and musical reasons I am not very happy with the choice of a fortepiano.

Eva Maria Pollerus has made different choices. In four of the sonatas with basso continuo she plays the harpsichord, a copy of an instrument by Christian Zell of 1728. In two sonatas she turns to the square piano; this was a quite popular instrument in the second half of the 18th century and is surprisingly seldom used in chamber music from this period. From that perspective this is an interesting aspect of this recording. But again I am not sure whether its use is justified from a historical angle considering the time of composition of these sonatas. The anonymous instrument dates from around 1790 which seems rather too late for this repertoire but I don't know enough of the development of the square piano to make a marked statement in this matter. There are certainly good reasons to use a clavichord in the Sonata in D (H 561). It was the most disseminated keyboard instrument among amateurs during the 18th century. Obviously it is not suitable for public performances because of its very soft sound. But it would be interesting if it were more frequently used in CD recordings of music written for domestic performances.

There are good arguments for both recordings. Which one you prefer is a matter of taste. From the angle of repertoire Dorothea Seel's recording is the more important as she included some sonatas which are not that well represented on disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Dorothea Seel
Thomas Platzgummer

CD Reviews