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Johann Joachim QUANTZ (1697 - 1773): "Flute Concertos"

Elysium Ensemble

rec: 2018/2019, Melbourne, St Joseph's Church, Malvern (AUS)
Resonus Classics - RES10252 (© 2019) (70'73")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto in e minor (QV 5,116) (cantabile e frezzante (con sordini)); Concerto in F (QV 5,162); Concerto in G (QV 5,178); Concerto in a minor (QV 5,236)

Greg Dikmans, transverse flute; Lucinda Moon, Natalia Harvey, violin; Christian Read, viola; Josephine Vains, cello; Ruth Wilkinson, violone; Samantha Cohen, theorbo

Johann Joachim Quantz does not seem to have a very good name with the music lovers at large. There is no doubt about his importance in music history, especially because of his treatise of 1752, entitled Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen (Essay of a Method for Playing the Transverse Flute), but his music seldom appears on the programmes of ensembles specializing in 18th-century repertoire. In the last twenty years or so, some discs with concertos and sonatas have been released, but only a small part of his sizeable oeuvre is available in recordings.

The skepticism with regard to his output can probably partly be explained by his long association with Frederick the Great. The King of Prussia was a fanatical lover of the flute, and wanted to play virtually every day. Most of Quantz's sonatas and concertos were written for such performances in Frederick's palace, and the King also composed music himself. However, his taste is often described as rather conservative, and it has also been suggested that he preferred 'simple' and 'gentle' music in the galant idiom to the more substantial and experimental compositions by, for instance, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who for a number of years acted as the court's harpsichordist.

Whether the present disc will contribute to Quantz's oeuvre becoming more popular, seems questionable. That is not due to the level of playing of the Elysium Ensemble, but rather the character of Quantz's music. Its flautist, Greg Dikmans, has extensively studied his oeuvre as well as his treatise, and in the liner-notes, he discusses many aspects of Quantz's style of composing and his ideas on performance practice at length. It seems fair to say that restraint and moderation are the main features of Quantz's music and aesthetical views. And that seems at odds with what is a tendency in modern performance practice, where not a few performers try to impress with break-neck speeds and an overload of embellishments and virtuosic cadenzas. If Dikmans's analysis is correct, that is not what Quantz aimed at - on the contrary.

It is useful to quote here, how Dikmans summarises Quantz's views, a product of the Enlightenment and an expression of the galant aesthetics: "Three important characteriscs of this Age of Reason influenced not only aesthetic thought, but also many aspects of life, such as social behaviour, fashion, public affairs and even the conduct of military campaigns. (1) Style: taste, refinement and elegance; (2) Restraint: moderation, delicacy and composure; and (3) Propriety: appropriateness. These characterics underlie much of Quantz's thinking throughout the Versuch."

He then mentions the consequences for performance practice. With regard to the tempo of fast movements, Quantz emphasises that expression of the sentiment is more important than "quick playing". It is important to choose a tempo which allows for a clear articulation and phrasing, and the addition of proper ornamentation. This is in line with Quantz's vocal ideal: good singing should be a guide for instrumental performance. He also states that it is the main task of a performer to move the listener. Dikmans sums up six principles regarding a good execution of a piece of music. These concern things like a differentiation in articulation, the emphasis of 'good' verses 'bad' notes and the dynamic differentation on long notes in slow movements. It is also notable that Quantz connects the various tempo indications, like allegro and adagio, with all its variants, to passions as gaiety, melancholy, boldness and flattery.

Dikmans and his colleagues aim at integrating all these elements into their performances. Two aspects are particularly important. The first concerns the choice of tempo. On the basis of his study of Quantz, Dikmans has come to conclusions about the speed of the different movements of the concertos included here, founded on a pulse beat of 80 per minute. The second is about the application of ornamentation and cadenzas. In the former category Quantz makes a distinction between "essential graces", such as mordents and trills, on the one hand, and "extempore or arbitrary variations" on the other. The latter are more specifically related to a particular piece and give the performer a larger amount of liberty. Quantz's view on the performance of cadenzas is in line with his general ideal of moderation. The soloist was not expected to display his virtuosity. "A cadenza must stem from the principle passion of the piece", Dikmans writes.

Lastly, two further features of this recording need to be mentioned. The pitch is lower than we have come to expect in 18th century (German) music: a=392 Hz, which was not only common in France, but also at Frederick's court. This is based on the pitch of Quantz's own flute; Dikmans plays a copy of this instrument. Moreover, the tutti are performed with one instrument per part. There are good reasons to assume that this was general use in the baroque era. Obviously there may have been exceptions to the rule, depending on the circumstances and the venue of a performance. However, Quantz's concertos were intended for a performance in Frederick's palace, and from that perspective, the line-up in these performances seems fully justified. It is notable that no harpsichord is used. According to Dikmans, after 1747 the fortepiano was used instead of the harpsichord. For this recording it was decided not to use a fortepiano, but rather a theorbo, as it "has tonal characteristics in common with the fortepiano". I have no problems with that as such, but I wonder whether a fortepiano would have been more in line with what was common practice at Frederick's court. I also don't quite understand why this decision was taken.

However, that is a small detail. I find this disc quite fascinating. This repertoire and the way it is played here will probably not attract a wide audience. This disc requires concentrated listening. The lengthy and detailed liner-notes and the comment on every movement included here are very helpful to understand the character of the music and the reasons why it is played as it is here. I have nothing but praise for the way Dikmans and his colleagues have put Quantz's instructions into practice. This disc is a fine illustration of Quantz's aesthetic ideals. At the same time, it is far from an academic discourse. This disc is also an example of excellent music making. I urge anyone who may think that Quantz is boring, to give these performances a fair chance. If you like the transverse flute, you definitely should not miss it.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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