J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Flute and Harpsichord – Stephen Schultz, Jory Vinikour – Music and Arts

The best performances of these works of the new millenium.

J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Flute and Harpsichord – Stephen Schultz (flute) Jory Vinikour (Harpsichord) – Music and Arts 1295 55:18, (3/2/18)  *****:

This writer subscribes to the view that the Sonatas BWV 1017-1023 for violin and harpsichord obbligato by Bach are his finest chamber works. A new recording of these by Rachel Barton Pine and Jory Vinikour were recently and favorably reviewed on these pages. It seems only fitting to acknowledge a 2018 recording of pieces that are nearest rivals to these eminent works, the Sonatas for Flute and Harpsichord, BWV 1030-1032, (featuring, as it happens, the same harpsichordist, Jory Vinikour); They are part of the inspired innovation to realize a trio sonata with two instruments by asking of the obbligato accompaniment a division of hands. The left hand merrily chases around the soloist, now in imitative counterpoint and now in extravagant improvisations, each instrument with its own themes, which converse with each other. The left hand soberly performs the work of the basso continuo, carrying along the swiftly-moving harmonic progressions.

From a historical perspective, these sonatas were remarkable for the use of the transverse flute as a solo instrument, an innovation coming out of the French Court and new to German musical traditions. This instrument was at a crucial stage of its evolution, and Bach, a restless explorer of instruments from the medieval Serpent to the Lute-Harpsichord (Lautenwerk), was well positioned at Leipzig to test its possibilities in chamber and concert music. These works date from the exact years, 1722-23, of the more famous violin sonatas. However, a manuscript from 1736 shows what is most likely a revision of an earlier draft, testimony that these works continued to occupy Bach later in life.

It has been suggested that Bach wrote these pieces with a specific flute virtuoso in mind. This individual would have been in possession of formidable skill, for the technical demands are considerable. Practitioners of the baroque flute must come to these pieces with some trepidation but also with the exhilaration of scaling a mountain. In this recording, we are fortunate to have veteran Stephen Schultz demonstrate his peerless abilities and understanding on the instrument in a meticulous recording of the three sonatas plus a work of uncertain authenticity but great charm, the BWV Sonata in G minor.

I first encountered this musician on a most intriguing recording of Boismortier’s Concertos for five flutes, which takes on all the parts of the concerto.  Apparently, Schultz was unable to rally four flute-playing colleagues to man the parts, so he recorded them all himself. These are sui generis works by a French composer who was a one-man industry with a verve for experimentation. Schulz does wonders with this music, which impresses both by the complexity of the part writing and by the haunting quality of the unisons. While strange enough, it is more than a baroque oddity and should be discovered anew, especially on Schultz’s 2008 Dorian recording, which will not easily be surpassed for elegance and pleasing sonics.

In this repertoire, the bench-mark recordings have always been those by Marc Hantai and Wilbert Hazelzet. I revisited those works with Grado professional level headphones to get as close to the music as possible, evaluating a host of musical values and and the even more important pleasure-index. Unfortunately, the older DHM recording by Hantai, pehaps the greatest ever on this instrument, is marred by suboptimal studio feng shui, specifically, a cranky harpsichord. Hazelzet benefits from the luxuriously sweet sound of Glossa recordings, which nicely balance his icy tone. Schultz comes in between: better sound than the Hantai recording and equal if not superior technique to Hazelzet.

The Music & Arts recording was made at Skywalker Sound in Marin County in 2016. The harpsichord (A= 415 Hz) is a John Phillips 2010 crafted after J. H. Gruber’s, Dresden 1722 model, as close to period authenticity as you can get. Microphones nicely catch every nuance of the flute, as well as the inhalations and the doppler sway of the flute from side to side. Vinikours playing definitely deserves note. It was only last year that I patiently absorbed his remarkable recording of the Bach Partitas, where I was struck by his freer play of time and his triumph of expressive joy over fussiness. Here he is at his best. The right-hand melodies concede no pride of place to the flute. They dance and swing. Ornamentation allows for a greater range of textures. If anything, the flute playing wears more than the accompaniment. Nor is the upper range of the harpsichord lacking in sweetness. It is a magnificent performance from start to finish. However, no amount of fiddling with knobs helped to bring out a sufficient bottom end of the instrument which is occasionally drowned out. One doesn’t know if it is a problem with the instrument or the choice of the engineers. It is the only flaw, and only intermittently noticeable, in an otherwise perfect recording.

The sonatas are not equal. By far the best known, and deservedly so, is the BWV 1030 work in B minor. The first movement alone is over 9 minutes long, an Andante made out of the same cloth as Bach’s gorgeous largos from the violin sonatas. The unabashed lyrical beauty is balanced against the thick harmonic tension of the harpsichord. Indeed, the keyboard provides a never-ending series of surprises, sometimes commenting on the melodies, at others investigating tangential harmonic landscapes like an over-curious hound on a zigzagging course over interesting terrain.  After the sumptuous Andante, taken even slower than Hantai’s version, one does not expect a Largo, but that is what ensues. On this four minute excursion, the harpsichord behaves more conventionally, strumming along like a guitar to a floating melodic line, while the flutist allows himself the slightest vibrato. Again it is all sunlit calm, Bach filtering through his Italic pastoral lens.

The Presto and Gigue put the test to the duo’s ability to sprint together. Vinikours articulation keeps the whole thing from chaos, especially as the two hands go their separate ways on contrary motion jaunts. The Gigue is a lively waltz with just a bit of craziness to the accompaniment, reminiscent of Bach’s eccentric use of the instrument in the Brandenburg concertos. In fact, the spirit of the concerto is everywhere present; Paradoxically, this founding moment of the Trios Sonata for two instruments is also the apotheosis of the concerto.

The next two sonatas are smaller in scale, lacking in the solemnity and harmonic rigors of the minor key work. They are delightful, and the rapport of the two players is faultless, There is tremendous feeling of relaxation, at its most exquisite in the alert pauses and inflections of the Largo e Dolce of BWV 1032. The Sonata in G minor, attributed to Bach, seems to my ears to be echt Bach. For some reason it makes me think of evening entertainments at the Court of Frederick the Great, the most famous patron of French art in general, who raised the status of the flute to its highest ever level. The slightly hectic accompaniment of the harpsichord recalls C.P.E. Bach in one of his flamboyant moods. In the end, it doesn’t matter much who is the real author if this fine sonata.

To conclude, this is a very distinguished recording of Bach masterworks by two of the finest early music experts. It should find a huge critical and popular welcome. Congratulations to Music and Arts for yet another masterpiece. (I refer to their ongoing project of recording pianist Carlo Grante’s tour of the entire Parma books of Domenico Scarlatti on a Bosendorfer Imperial Piano, one of the greatest works of our time)

—Fritz Balwit

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