11 February 2018

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach — SONATAS FOR FLUTE & HARPSICHORD, BWV 1020 & 1030 – 1032 (Stephen Schultz, Baroque flute; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Music & Arts CD-1295)

IN REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach - SONATAS FOR FLUTE & HARPSICHORD, BWV 1020 & 1030 - 1032 (Music & Arts CD-1295)JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Sonatas for flute and harpsichord, BWV 1020 & 1030 – 1032Stephen Schultz, Baroque flute; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord [Recorded at Skywalker Sound, Marin County, California, USA, 10 – 13 August 2016; Music & Arts CD-1295; 1 CD, 55:18; Available from Music & Arts, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]

In this second decade of the Twentieth Century, when his music is recorded, promoted, and shared via every conceivable outlet and his prevalence on social media equals the popularity of many living celebrities, it is remarkable to recall that, within a generation of his death in 1750, Johann Sebastian Bach was remembered beyond the minuscule ranks of connoisseurs and fellow composers almost exclusively as an organist. Even his musically-inclined sons, who expanded their familial diaspora across the European continent, were little concerned with preserving their father’s music. By 1750, the musical world as Bach knew it was changing rapidly, its revolutions erupting well in advance of the storming of the Bastille. The advent of the fortepiano was slowly dislodging the harpsichord from its secure place as the preeminent keyboard instrument, and wind instruments with valves were forcing their ‘natural’ cousins into obscurity. Bach was an artist with far-reaching foresight, though, one whose genius for prefiguring the innovations of future generations in his own musical language was rivaled only by Gustav Mahler’s similar propensity. There are many gaps in history’s record of Bach’s day-to-day life and work, but his music tells its own stories. The narrative that emerges from Bach’s music is one of astonishing genius manifested in a body of work that after more than 250 years continues to offer performers and listeners fresh perspectives on music’s ongoing evolution.

Aside from opera, Bach pioneered, propelled, or perfected almost every musical form in use during his lifetime. Though neglected from the time of his death until their rediscovery in the Nineteenth Century by Felix Mendelssohn and other enterprising musicians, Bach’s Passions, Masses, motets, and cantatas are now rightly regarded as cornerstones of Western liturgical music, just as the six concerti assembled as a diversion for the Margrave of Brandenburg are frequently cited as bellwether works in the development of modern orchestration. Bach’s achievements in these genres are indeed groundbreaking, but the quality of his surviving chamber music can be argued to exceed his finest endeavors in other forms. Paralleling his refinement of writing for the organ, Bach extracted from the trio sonatas of Dietrich Buxtehude and musical predecessors of similar abilities the raw materials with which he would assemble his own music for varied small consorts of instruments. Upon this foundation the Sonatas for flute and harpsichord were erected with near-revolutionary faculty for interweaving thematic material between the instruments.

As is true of much of Bach’s music, it is now impossible to ascertain precisely when, where, and with what intentions the Sonatas for flute and harpsichord were devised. Many mysteries complicate understanding of the circumstances that yielded these Sonatas, foremost among which is the question of whether two of them are truly works composed or substantially arranged by Bach. However elusive answers may be, these questions must be asked. Neither the asking nor the difficulty of finding verifiable responses adversely affects enjoyment of the Sonatas, however—especially when they are performed with the period-appropriate musicality and interpretive warmth heard in this expertly-engineered Music & Arts recording. The perceived value of a piece attributed to Bach is unquestionably less than that of music of confirmed authorship, but it is a perception akin to the notion that one of a pair of delectable pastries is less desirable than its partner because the kitchen that produced it cannot be definitively identified. One of the marvels of music is that nothing else seems relevant when well-prepared, well-executed performances resound in one’s ears. Both the preparation and the execution of these performances of the Sonatas for flute and harpsichord persuade the listener that, regardless of its enigmas, this music deserves the attention of the most gifted musicians.

The rewards reaped by this music from the collaboration between accomplished—but not doggedly unyielding—masters of historically-informed music making Stephen Schultz and Jory Vinikour are extraordinary. A virtuoso flautist whose extensive career both in the United States and abroad encompasses solo recitals and concerts, as well as performances with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Musica Angelica, Tafelmusik, and a number of the world’s most renowned period instrument ensembles. A pioneer of combining amplification with flutes of authentic Eighteenth-Century design in order to introduce the singular timbres of these instruments to new audiences, Schultz here plays a German traverse flute created in 2012 after an Italian instrument by Carlo Palanca. His partner in this recording, Vinikour, plays a robust-toned double manual harpsichord built by John Phillips in 2010 after a Gräbner instrument dating from 1722. Like Schultz, Vinikour has been acclaimed throughout the world as soloist, continuo player, chamber musician, accompanist to singers, and conductor. Bach’s music, particularly the Goldberg Variations, justifiably occupies a position of great prominence in Vinikour’s career, making him an ideal companion for Schultz’s explorations of these Sonatas.

Often using the harpsichord’s treble line in the manner of a second melody instrument, contrasted with the straightforward functionality of the bass, Bach’s writing mimics the part writing found in the trio sonatas of his contemporaries, looking to the future and Franz Joseph Haydn’s trios. Schultz and Vinikour each play as though the other’s instrument were an extension of his own, the latter’s incredible affinity for matching the nuances of his colleague’s phrasing despite the harpsichord’s singular mechanism complementing the former’s talent for legato playing that recalls not the efforts of fellow flautists but of Maria Callas. As they are performed by these musicians, Schultz’s flute singing and Vinikour’s harpsichord scintillating, the Sonatas are virtually cantatas for voice and orchestra.

Seemingly metamorphosed by Bach into the form heard in this performance circa 1736, the Sonata in B minor (BWV 1030) began its life in G minor, in which key the melodic line was likely written for violin. The gracefully appealing writing for the flute in the opening Andante movement confirms that Bach’s conversion of the music cannot have been merely a commercially opportunistic exercise. Schultz’s playing heightens the allure of Bach’s ingenious manipulations of the principal subject. The interactions between flute and harpsichord, here realized with a directness that suggests a private conversation between friends rather than a public performance, anticipate the intricacies of Brahms’s chamber music. The Largo e dolce movement that follows is a courtly dance in which shy smiles peek out from the shadows, illuminated by the unhurried lyricism of Schultz’s and Vinikour’s playing. Comparable with similar sections in Bach’s concerti and orchestral suites, this Sonata’s Presto and Gigue are especially demanding, but neither the Presto’s contrapuntal writing nor the Gigue’s passagework in quavers presents challenges that Schultz is not wholly capable of meeting. In this performance, the mathematical precision with which Bach managed thematic development is limned with Cartesian accuracy that never displaces the ebullient spirit of the playing.

Appearing in Bach’s hand only in a now-incomplete transcription of music likely originally scored for recorder, violin, and harpsichord [Alfred Dürr’s practical reconstruction of the missing music for the Neue Bach Ausgabe is utilized in this performance], the Sonata in A major (BWV 1032) exhibits virtues closely related to those of the B-minor Sonata. The acumen with which Bach restructured the instrumentation is apparent, but no seams show in the tight knit of Schultz’s and Vinikour’s performance. The opening Vivace receives from the musicians an outpouring of energy that invigorates every subtlety of the music. Like the second movement of BWV 1030, BWV 1032’s Largo e dolce is an elegant siciliana, here more stylized but no less distinguished. Schultz’s breath control might have been honed from study of this music, and he shapes the melodic line with exceptional eloquence. Spurred by Vinikour’s dexterous playing, there is an improvisatory aura in this reading of the final Allegro that focuses the listener’s attention on every detail of the music, fully displaying the comprehensiveness of Bach’s knowledge of harmony and instrumental timbres.

Recent scholarship suggests that the BWV 1020 and 1031 Sonatas may be either the work of Johann Joaquim Quantz or admiring reworkings thereof by Bach or other composers, including Bach’s sons. The kinship of the Sonata in E♭ major (BWV 1031) with Quantz’s music is obvious, but it is not out of place amidst Bach’s compositions. Still, there is an emphasis on ceremonial ornamentation in the Allegro moderato first movement that is at odds with the interpretive specificity typical of embellishment in Bach’s scores. Nevertheless, Schultz and Vinikour wholly circumvent the pitfall of sacrificing momentum to demonstrations of their own technical prowess. Rather, their dedication is to providing the listener with an unaffected traversal of the music, free from proselytizing in favor of any concept of the Sonata’s origins. The central movement is again a Siciliano, and the defining lilt of the form persists in Schultz’s and Vinikour’s performance even when the music ventures furthest from it. The resolving Allegro is delivered with effervescence, flautist and harpsichordist trading cascades of notes with the wit of actors in an Oscar Wilde play. An occasional resemblance in elements of the Sonata’s construction to operatic arias of the period lends circumstantial credence to a theory that BWV 1020 and 1031 were actually composed by Carl Heinrich Graun. In that vein, Schutlz’s and Vinikour’s playing conjures a good-natured incarnation of the thrilling competitions between singers like Farinelli and Caffarelli.

The home key of the Sonata in G minor (BWV 1020) suffuses the music with a prevailing seriousness that Schultz and Vinikour take care to maintain without exaggeration. The Sonata’s mood is not unlike the dramatic atmosphere shared by Mozart’s two symphonies in the same key, but a brightness permeates the first Allegro that disperses any clouds of gloom that threaten to gather. Approaching the music without interpretive agenda is the core principal of Schultz’s and Vinikour’s performance, and their success is nowhere more absolute than in the G-minor Sonata’s Adagio movement. The simplicity with which the flautist traces the melodic line is deeply satisfying in the fashion of Wolfgang Schneiderhan’s playing of the slow movements of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, supported by the harpsichordist’s sure-fingered navigations of the shifting currents of the ground bass. The gentlemen launch the second Allegro powerfully, tapping the flow of electricity that courses through the music. The sparks that they strike ignite the performance, but the pyrotechnics are always tastefully discharged. Whether the music is the work of Bach, Quantz, Graun, another hand, or community effort, Schultz and Vinikour play it with integrity that would make any composer proud to claim it.

Technology enables today’s listeners to experience the music of composers who only a generation ago remained forgotten. In such an environment, it no longer suffices to state that a composer was a genius and expect that statement to be accepted as fact without substantiation. This is also true of a musician’s reputation. When assessing the merit of a composer’s work or a performer’s artistry, hearing is believing. To hear this recording of four Sonatas for flute and harpsichord is to believe that Johann Sebastian Bach was a musical innovator without peer in the first half of the Eighteenth Century. Perhaps Bach would not recognize all of the music on this disc as his own, but ears as discerning as his could not fail to hear in the playing of Stephen Schultz and Jory Vinikour echoes of his own genius and virtuosity.