Friday, November 4, 2022

Bach and the recorder

In my previous blog I reviewed several discs with music transcribed for keyboard. Recorder players are also keen transcribers as they find that there is not enough music for their instrument, especially in the repertoire of the 18th century. The recorder was one of the main instruments of the Renaissance and was still frequently played during the 17th century. It lost its appeal to composers after 1700, when the transverse flute became increasingly popular. Again, Bach is one of the most frequently-transcribed composers: almost anyone wants to play some music by him, but unfortunately he did not serve recorder players very well. Their instrument is given parts in some of the Brandenburg Concertos and participates in a number of cantatas, but there are no sonatas for recorder, neither solo nor trio sonatas. There are quite a number of recordings on the market, in which recorder players perform Bach's sonatas for transverse flute. Those are also included in the recordings which are the subject of this blog, but they cover a wider range of repertoire.

Stefano Bagliano and Andrea Coen [1] play three of Bach's flute sonatas, However, one of them, included as BWV 1020 in the Schmieder catalogue, is probably not from JS Bach's pen, but rather written by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. It is scored for an obbligato harpsichord and flute; in this performance Bagliano plays a soprano recorder which produces a rather penetrating sound, at the cost of the harpsichord. Given that all the parts are treated on equal footing by the composer, that is a problem. The balance between the recorder and the organ is generally better, especially if Bagliano plays an alto recorder. The repertoire is unusual: I can't remember ever having heard some of the 3-part Sinfonias and contrapuncti from Die Kunst der Fuge in a performance by recorder and keyboard. In the Sonata BWV 1032 the recorder is accompanied by the organ in the first two movements, but by the harpsichord in the third, which is rather unsatisfying. The playing leaves nothing to be desired, but all in all I am not really convinced by this recording.

It is no coincidence that the organ is a better match for the recorder than the harpsichord. Both are wind instruments, and the recorder can sound like one of the stops of the organ. The balance is generally better, as the next disc shows. Agnès Blanche Marc and Helene von Rechenberg [2] confine themselves to the oeuvre of Bach and play three of his chamber works for transverse flute(s): BWV 1030, 1031 and 1039. The have extended their programme with the triosonata for organ BWV 527 and the chorale trio Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend (BWV 655). In these two pieces Ms Marc plays a soprano recorder, and even here it is too dominant, although that may well be due to the recording. In the trio sonata this damages the equal role of all three parts. In the chorale trio it would not be that much of a problem, if the recorder would play the cantus firmus, but here it plays the upper part. The effect is that it overshadows the cantus firmus played at a lower pitch at the organ. I am hesitant to rank this recording among those in the tradition of historical performance practice. The booklet mentions the recorders that are used here, but not whether they are copies of historical instruments. The organ definitely is no historical instrument: It was originally built in 1930 and has been rebuilt in 1983/84; a number of pipes from the old organ were included. Parts of the rebuilt instrument have "a classic 'neo-baroque' disposition", according to the booklet. Those are not the features which makes it suitable for a performance that does justice to the baroque performance practice. Obviously, the organ is in modern pitch and has an equal temperament. That is not what is required in a performance of music by Bach. It results in performances that are a bit dull, even though the playing is alright.

The last two discs have much in common: Bach is in the centre of attention, and the instruments are recorder and lute. This turns out to be a pretty much ideal partnership. Under the title 'Dialogues' Dorothee Oberlinger and Edin Karamazov [3] play a programme of pieces by Bach that are arranged for either instrument solo or for the combination of both. Again, we get two of Bach's flute sonatas (BWV 1034 and 1035), but also the allemande from the Partita BWV 1013 for flute solo. The longest item is the last of the programme: the lute suite BWV 997, here in an arrangement for recorder and lute. It works pretty well, and overall the balance is much better than in the two previous recordings. Both players execute their selection of works with much sensitivity and stylistic understanding. Only in the performance of the Concerto in d minor (BWV 974), Bach's arrangement of Alessandro Marcello's oboe concerto, I think Ms Oberlinger goes a little too far in her ornamentation. However, this is a very enjoying disc that will please Bach lovers just as much as recorder and lute aficionados.

That may also be the case with the last disc. Tabea Debus and Alon Sariel [4] open and close their programme with Bach: they start with the lute suite BWV 997 that also figures on the previous disc, but play only three of the four movements. The Partita BWV 1006 for violin solo is performed here in an arrangement for recorder and lute. I don't think I have ever heard this piece with this combination of instruments, but it works surprisingly well. In between are pieces by Silvius Leopold Weiss and Heinrich Franz Ignaz Biber as well as Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel. The latter is represented here by his little-known harp sonata - a quite original choice. The pieces by Biber are played well, but especially the passacaglia that closes the collection of Mystery Sonatas is the least-convincing item, probably because the recorder can't quite reproduce the dynamic capabilities of the violin. The two players are excellent, and because of that this disc is interesting and entertaining.

[1] JS Bach: "Music for Recorder & Harpsichord"
Stefano Bagliano, recorder; Andrea Coen, harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 95777 (© 2021) details

[2] JS Bach: "Bach & Flauto & Organo"
Agnès Blanche Marc, recorder; Helene von Rechenberg, organ
Spektral SRL4-20180 (© 2022) details

[3] JS Bach: "Dialoge"
Dorothee Oberlinger, recorder; Edin Karamazov, lute
deutsche harmonia mundi 19439875862 (© 2021) details

[4] "Sounds familiar"
Tabea Debus, recorder; Alon Sariel, lute
gwk records GWK 156 (© 2022) details