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Johann Sebastian BACH & George Frideric HANDEL: Flute Sonatas

[I] Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Sonatas for flute and harpsichord"
Stefanie Troffaes, transverse flutea; Julien Wolfs, harpsichord
rec: May 2015, Beaufays (B)
Paraty - 165142 (© 2015) (77'07")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Partita for harpsichord in e minor (BWV 830); Sonata for harpsichord and transverse flute in A (BWV 1032)a; Sonata for harpsichord and transverse flute in b minor (BWV 1030)a; Sonata for transverse flute and bc in E (BWV 1035)a; Sonata for transverse flute and bc in e minor (BWV 1034)a

[II] George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): "Flute Sonatas"
Dorothea Seel, transverse flute; Luca Guglielmi, harpsichord
rec: Jan 21 - 22, 2009, Kartause Mauerbach (AU)
Hänssler Classic - HC16005 (© 2015) (48'07")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Sonata in D (HWV 378); Sonata in e minor (HWV 359b); Sonata in e minor (HWV 379); Sonata in G (HWV 363b); Sonata in b minor (HWV 367b)

Shortly after 1700 the transverse flute developed into one of the most fashionable instruments and became especially popular among amateurs. It therefore doesn't come as a surprise that many composers started to write chamber music in various textures for this instrument or at least with a part for it. After all, chamber music was almost always written for amateurs. But there are exceptions, and that becomes especially clear if we compare the chamber music by two of the main composers of the baroque era, Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel.

Bach composed quite a number of sonatas. They are of three different types. On the one hand we have the sonata for a melody instrument and bc. The second type is the trio sonata which represents the most popular form of chamber music since the publication of Corelli's trio sonatas in the 1690s. The third type is derived from the second: the sonata for an obbligato keyboard and a melody instrument. The keyboard here takes two parts, one of the upper voices and the bass, whereas the melody instrument plays the other upper voice. The flute appears in sonatas of all these types.

Bach is often considered a conservative composer but he gave the modern flute a much more prominent role than the old-fashioned recorder. The transverse flute appears is more than 80 of Bach's compositions. Famous flute parts are the obbligato part in the aria 'Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben' from his St Matthew Passion and the solo parts in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, the Triple Concerto and the Overture No. 2. Many flute parts from the 1720s are virtuosic and require a professional player. One of his pupils is known to have been such a virtuoso: Friedrich Gottlieb Wild. He may also have been the player for whom Bach composed the Sonata in e minor (BWV 1034) which is assumed to date from around 1724.

The Sonata in E (BWV 1035) is from a much later date, probably 1741, and was written during a stay in Potsdam. The surviving copy from the late 19th century includes the remark "for the royal valet Fredersdorf". This refers to Michael Gabriel Fredersdorf who was in the service of Frederick the Great and was his flute duet partner. This and the date of composition explain why it is written in the galant idiom which was so popular in the mid-18th century and favoured by Frederick.

The two other sonatas are for obbligato keyboard and transverse flute. The Sonata in b minor (BWV 1030) is one of Bach's most famous chamber music creations. It has survived in an autograph from around 1736. Another autograph has only the keyboard part and is in g minor. It is in three movements, following the model of the Vivaldian solo concerto. The two instruments are treated on equal terms in the opening and closing movements but in the largo e dolce in the middle the flute takes the lead. The Sonata in A (BWV 1032) dates from about the same time. It has come down to us in an autograph which also includes the Concerto in c minor (BWV 1062) for two harpsichords. It is again in three movements but unfortunately around 50 bars are missing from the first movement. In most modern performances and recordings this movement is played in a reconstruction but unfortunately Troffaes and Wolfs decided to omit the entire movement.

They have confined themselves to those sonatas whose authenticity is established. That leaves much space which is filled by the Partita in e minor (BWV 830) for harpsichord solo, from Bach's Clavier-Übung I. Wolfs delivers a very good performance. He is aware of the improvisatory traces of the opening toccata; the sarabande is especally well done, in a truly rhetorical manner. The liner-notes are entirely devoted to this aspect of baroque music and its performance and that comes also to the fore in the interpretations by these two young Belgian artists. They show their technical and musical skills here in some of Bach's finest works. Setting aside the incomplete performance of the Sonata in A, the only point of criticism is that the flute is a little too dominant in the sonatas for obbligato keyboard and flute. There should have been a more marked difference in the balance between the two types of sonatas.

Whereas Bach's flute sonatas were intended for professional players Handel's chamber music was clearly written for amateurs. After 1700 a growing number of music lovers from the higher echelons of society but increasingly also from the middle classes started to perform music themselves. This created a market for music which was of good quality but technically not too complicated. Composers and publishers tried to make the most of this by writing and printing music which was within the grasp of amateurs. In England the recorder enjoyed unremitting popularity, and a publisher like John Walsh met the demand for recorder music by publishing sonatas by the most popular composers of his time, including Handel. Whether these sonatas were originally intended for the recorder was not of the publisher's concern. It has led to much questions about the authenticity of Handel's recorder sonatas.

The transverse flute was gaining popularity at the continent, in France but also in Germany. The fact that Walsh in some of his editions also specifically mentioned the flute is an indication that the instrument's popularity was growing in England as well. One of the main sources of Handel's sonatas is the Walsh edition Sonates pour un Traversiere, un Violon ou Hautbois con Basso Continuo Composées par G.F. Handel of 1726. It is questionable whether Handel had anything to do with it. Six years later Walsh published a revised edition; it is assumed that this time Handel was involved in some way but it is still unclear to what extent. Scholars seem now more or less in agreement as to which sonatas are 'authentic' flute sonatas. These are the pieces Dorothea Seel and Luca Guglielmi have recorded.

I haven't put the word 'authentic' between quotation marks without a reason. Most of these five sonatas were originally scored for a different instrument. The Sonata in e minor (HWV 359b) has been preserved in a version for violin in d minor. The Sonata in G (BWV 363b) also exists in a version for oboe which is in F. The Sonata in b minor (HWV 367b) is probably an adaptation of a sonata for recorder in d minor. The Sonata in D (HWV 378) has come down to us in a manuscript which is now in the library of the Brussels Royal Conservatory of Music and mentions the name of Jean Sigm Weiss as the composer. He was a brother of Silvius Leopold and like his brother a lutenist and composer. Because of the similarity between thematic material from this sonata and various compositions by Handel this sonata is considered an authentic piece from Handel's pen. Much material from other works also appears in the Sonata in e minor (HWV 379), another piece which has been preserved in manuscript. It seems that various movements are arrangements of movements from other sonatas for different instruments.

It is not known for sure when Handel composed these sonatas or the earlier versions of them. Handel himself indicated that he composed quite a lot in his German years, before he went to Italy. The influence of Arcangelo Corelli is unmistakable but this should not lead to the conclusion that he composed his sonatas after his arrival in Italy. He was well acquainted with the Italian style before he arrived there. He may have revised some early works later but much about the origins of his chamber music remains in the dark.

In his liner-notes to the recording by Barthold Kuijken (Accent, 1991) Jan De Winne refers to the fact that Handel gave relatively little attention to the flute, including in his operas and oratorios. "Could it be that the flute was too intimate an instrument for Handel's extrovert character?" It is an intriguing thought but as we don't know to what extent he was involved in adapting his sonatas for the flute it is just impossible to tell. Moreover, at the time he probably composed most of his chamber music the flute was still in the stage of becoming popular but had not reached the same status as the violin or - in England - the recorder. In any case, the sonatas played here are certainly not short of drama and theatrical flair. That is a feature of Handel's music in general, and the chamber music is no exception.

That aspect is emphasized here by Dorothea Seel and Luca Guglielmi. The fast movements are given a very lively interpretation and the slower movements are played with much expression. Ms Seel adds nice ornamentation and differentiates between good and bad notes in truly rhetorical fashion. In that respect these performances are very much like those by Stefanie Troffaes and Julien Wolfs. Guglielmi is congenial partner at the harpsichord.

Those who know these sonatas may wonder about the tracklist. The Sonata in G (HWV 363b) seems to end with the bourrée; so where's the menuet? For unexplicable reasons it is in the same track as the bourrée but is not explicitly mentioned.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Luca Guglielmi
Stefanie Troffaes
Dorothea Seel

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