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"Solo for the King - Concert at the royal court of Frederick the Great"

Jana Semerádová, transverse flutea; Lenka Torgersen, violinb; Hana Fleková, celloc; Bertrand Cuiller, harpsichordd

rec: Dec 10 & 12, 2011, Prague, Convent of St Agnes of Bohemia (St Francis of Assissi Church)
Supraphon - SU 4087-2 (© 2012) (58'25")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/C
Cover & track-list

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Duetto in e minor (Wq 140 / H 598)ab; Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Musicalisches Opfer (BWV 1079) (Canon perpetuus super thema Regiumabc; Fuga canonica in Epidiapentead); Sonata for harpsichord and transverse flute in b minor (BWV 1030)ad; Franz BENDA (1709-1786): Sonata in e minor (Lee III,57)ad; Johann Philipp KIRNBERGER (1721-1783): Sonata a 3 in g minorabcd; Johann Joachim QUANTZ (1697-1773): Gigue in g minorac [1]; Minuetto in e minorac [1]; Sarabande in Ga [1]

Source: [1] Johann Joachim Quantz, Fantasier og Preludier. 8. Capricier og andre Stykker til Řvelse for Flö˙ten af Quanz, n.d.

This year (2012) the birth of Frederick II, better known as Frederick the Great, in 1712 is being commemorated with concerts and recordings. These pay homage to the musicians who were part of his court chapel. Frederick was a great music-lover and an avid player of the flute, much to his father's chagrin who thought that making music was something for sissies. It was only when Frederick set up his own court, first in Ruppin and then in Rheinsberg, that he was able to gather together an ensemble of some of the best performers and composers of his time. When he became King of Prussia in 1740 he was fully free to follow his passions. He had to deal with political and military matters, but music was his first love.

The title - and in particular the subtitle - of this disc should be taken with a grain of salt. There is no proof whatsoever that any of these pieces have been played at the court of Frederick. In some cases it is even very unlikely. That is especially the case with those by Johann Sebastian Bach. There is little chance that any of the old Bach's music would have been played by the King or members of his chapel. It is true that Bach visited the King in Potsdam in 1747. At that occasion Frederick gave him a theme about which he was supposed to improvise. After returning to Leipzig Bach used it to create his Musicalisches Opfer which he then sent to Frederick. But the King never even bothered to thank him for his gift. So it is anything but sure that this work was ever played at his court.

The same is true for the Duetto in e minor for flute and violin by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. He had been harpsichordist in the service of Frederick since 1738, and played an important role at court until 1767 when he succeeded Telemann as music director in Hamburg. But the relationship with the King was never unproblematic which had everything to do with the difference of musical taste between the two men. Frederick was rather conservative, and didn't like the unpredictable and experimental character of the Empfindsamkeit of which Carl Philipp Emanuel was a representative. The latter clearly felt very much constricted by the King's taste. The duet was written during Bach's time in Potsdam, but that doesn't imply that it was performed at court. The members of the chapel also took part in music life in Berlin, playing in the homes of the bourgeoisie.

One of the virtues of this disc is that in their choice of repertoire the artists have avoided the obvious, with the exception of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. The duet of Carl Philipp Emanuel is not one of his most familiar chamber music works. Quantz, who was Frederick's flute teacher, is not represented with one of his many sonatas for flute and basso continuo, but rather with three pieces from a curious collection which is preserved in Copenhagen. These are mostly quite virtuosic pieces, probably exercise material for Quantz' own use. The Sarabande in G for flute solo is a good example; it includes many wide leaps. The Minuetto in e minor and the nice Gigue in g minor are for flute and cello; the latter is mainly reduced to providing a kind of bass to the flute.

In particular the last movement of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's sonata contains some strong contrasts, reflecting the fashion of the Empfindsamkeit. Some of this is also present in the Sonata in e minor by Franz Benda, one of the most brilliant violinists of his time. He was especially famous for his playing of adagios which could bring audiences to tears. Charles Burney wrote that his style of playing was "truly cantabile", and that comes in particular to the fore in the first movement. Johann Philipp Kirnberger was one of Johann Sebastian Bach's last pupils and a vehement defender of his teacher's music. His preference of counterpoint didn't prevent him from allowing more modern elements to enter his chamber music, such as the Sonata a 3 in g minor, which starts with a particularly beautiful andante.

This is one of the better Frederick-related discs I have heard recently. Jana Semerádová is a technically-assured player who produces a bright and strong tone. In the first movement of Johann Sebastian Bach's Sonata in b minor (BWV 1030) I had to get used to some unusual articulations. But she gives a nice performance of this sonata, although the balance is too much in favour of the flute. I would have liked the harpsichord to have more presence. Bertrand Cuiller plays well, but is a little too discreet. Semerádová indulges the agility of her playing in the Sarabande in G by Quantz. The balance between flute and violin in Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Kirnberger is excellent, and Lenka Torgersen delivers engaging readings of her parts. The sonata by Benda is an perfect example of Semerádová's ability to play cantabile. The contrasts in some movements come off perfectly. Hana Fleková and Bertrand Cuiller give outstanding support.

The title may be a bit speculative, but this is a nice tribute to the music-loving King of Prussia.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Jana Semerádová

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