The Bach family’s fascination with, and seminal contributions to, the flute repertoire orbits around the musical centers of Dresden and Berlin. It was in these capital cities of Saxony and Prussia respectively that Germany’s greatest flute players held forth.
In 1719, not long after his arrival in Dresden, the 22-year-old Johann Joachim Quantz turned from the violin and oboe to the transverse flute and would go on to become that newly fashionable instrument’s greatest pedagogue. Quantz launched his own musical transformation under the French virtuoso and long-time member of the famed Dresden court orchestra, Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin. Some two decades later Quantz was lured away from Dresden to Berlin to become the music master of the young Frederick the Great, whom C.P.E. Bach would for three long decades accompany at his nightly flute concerts in which Quantz also participated. J.S. Bach would meet Quantz and Frederick in 1747 during the visit to the Prussian court that ultimately led to the genesis of A Musical Offering. That collection of ingenious canons begins with a trio sonata whose notoriously difficult flute part was capable of musically humbling the monarch to whom the work was dedicated.
For Johann Sebastian Bach and his second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, who would become far more famous in the second half of the eighteenth century than his father had ever been in its first half, the flute is the musical embodiment of fashionable bearing and intimate feeling. Yet for all its pleading nuance, the flute holds unmatched prestige and powers of expression: with Frederick the Great as its monarchic proponent and player, the instrument was literally a regal one.
A recording just released from La Petite Bande of J.S. Bach’s four Overtures (BWV 1066-1069) presents in the third of these orchestral suites the flute in its guise as the prince of soloists—proud and powerful, and if despotic, always enlighteningly so. The ensemble is directed from the violin by its founder, Sigiswald Kuijken; his younger brother, Barthold happens to be one of the great baroque flute players of our time. Continuing a lifelong collaboration, their reading of Bach’s B minor Overture, BWV 1067, makes one glad not only to be able to hear their performance in this resonant digital recording at home or in the earbuds, but also to yearn to experience their playing in the music room of a European palace—a venue only a fraction the size of the modern concert hall, and warmed not just by intimate yet ample acoustics, but candlelight playing off of gilded mirrors.
This most recent addition to an already overcrowded recording market in Bach’s Overtures attracts attention first because of its powerful bass-lines played by not one, but two violones, (basse de violin in the French of this Belgian recording); these stentorian, stand-up stringed instruments give heft to the dotted rhythms of royal pomp that begin the record and the opening movements of the other three suites as well. The paired violones imbue this courtly chamber music with the kind of gravity Bach loved at the organ; cellos are dispensed with as if made redundant by the resounding overtones of the robust, but never ponderous, basses.
More remarkable still is the revelatory use on this disc of natural trumpets. For some 50 years now brass players in period instrument ensembles have used reconstructions of these valveless old instruments, but have altered them with vent holes to make it easier to play in tune and to navigate the often florid passagework Bach demanded. So arduous were some of the parts that one even killed Bach’s own trumpeter, Gottfried Reiche at an outdoor performance in Leipzig for the visiting Saxon royals in the fall of 1734. Amazingly the three Petite Bande trumpeters use instruments without vent holes: for the first time since Bach’s own day his trumpet lines are played without the help of the fingers, and as a result one hears the sheer brash jubilation of a sound that takes its energy from the sense that it is on the verge of shattering into a thousand shards of brass. The sonority is not hard and harsh, as modern trumpets can often be, but alive with the texture of effort and exhilaration nowhere more than the concluding Réjouissance of the fourth suite, one of two in the trumpet’s home key of D-major.
Even while I was swept along by the audacity of this trumpet playing and the way it enriches our understanding of Bach’s sound world, the “flute” overture won the greatest part of my devotion to this disc. This suite is as much a concerto for flute as it is a succession of dances for orchestra. The piece stems from the late 1730s when Bach was at the end of his decade-long tenure as director of Leipzig’s Musicum collegium, a mainstay of the city’s burgeoning public music culture.
The fugue that follows the French pomp of the opening is as thrilling for the syncopated momentum of its counterpoint as it is for the soaring virtuosity of the solo flute episodes. The oft-made suggestion that Buffardin was the piece’s first soloist is supported by the fact that its difficulty required the ability of a player of the caliber of the Dresden master. Barthold Kuijken is a worthy successor to the great Buffardin—nuanced and subtle even at brisk tempos and amidst the teeming technical difficulties of serpentine figuration and long arcing phrases. The ensuing galanteries—the modish designation for the newer dances cultivated by the fashionable—look west to France (Rondeau; a pair of Bourées; Minuet) and east to Poland (the trendy Polonaise). The B minor orchestral suite is the only one of Bach’s to include a Sarabande, the venerable dance that had been at the core of the suite since the 17th century. In this movement’s melancholy shadows flickers a mournful canon between the top voice (flute and violin) and the continuo line (those violones): it is a very Bachian demonstration that counterpoint is not merely abstract and cerebral but can also be used to tint a profound emotional tableau, here with Barthold Kuijken’s flute as its most nuanced pigment.
Yet another appealing feature of this recording is the abundant, but always tasteful, use of inegalité—that characteristically French practice of playing notes of equally notated value unequally, most often long-short. The proper proportion cannot be captured on the page but is left instead to the ineffable dictates of bon gout. The effect is not unlike the “swing” practiced by jazz musicians. Inequality was a hallmark of French music just as it was a brutal truth of the ancien regime. The unapologetic elitism of the style radiates in Kuijken’s performance, proof that these Belgian products of the social safety net can play the part of the musical royalist.
The B minor suite concludes with the incandescent Badinerie, a bracing test of musical cultivation and technique after the preceding protocols of refinement and style—all of the numbers to be played with an aristocratic nonchalance that belies the craft and hard work required to bring them off. The Kuijkens do not take this famous final movement as fast as some moderns: to impress with sheer speed would be a violation of courtly grace. Instead they adopt a cantering elegance that is the sounding picture of courtly hauteur.
This most recent record of Barthold Kuijken’s most recent flute triumph—the icing on the cake amidst the banquet table prepared by his brother’s band—reminds me of his 2006 disc of music by C.P.E. Bach with Ewald Demeyere accompanying at the forte piano with tasteful imagination.
Eager to please his powerful employer, C.P. E. Bach composed several excellent flute sonatas during his first years in Frederick the Great’s musical entourage; a few others followed before Bach’s removal to Hamburg in 1768 to take up the post of Director of Music there. But Emanuel returned one last time to the genre of flute sonata late in his life. The so-called Hamburger sonata dates from 1786, two years before his death and a time when Bach was perhaps not coincidentally also making arrangements of canons from A Musical Offering for domestic performance. Emanuel seems to have been looking both back to the great events of the past—his father’s meetings with the Frederick the Great, with Quantz standing nearby—and ahead to his own legacy. With glinting ornaments, sentimental sighs, and restrained bravura, Kuijken projects the unflappable poise of the expansive first movement of the Hamburger sonata, a piece that might be heard to reflect the maturity expected of a late work; yet listening to this performance, the sonata demonstrates equally that the gallant style of Emanuel’s Berlin days still had robust life in it, gracefulness and conversational elegance banishing nostalgia. Kuijken’s buoyant reading of the last movement teaches us how the music of an ailing, old man can resound with youth and exuberance; in this wonderful recording, the piece is as insouciant now as it was in Bach’s last, gout-plagued years, and dances as he no longer could.