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  40:3 (01-22 /2017)
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Reviewer: Jerry Dubins


In 38:6, I began a review of a CD of Bach’s flute sonatas performed by Jean-Michel Tanguy by asking the question, “Will the real Bach flute sonatas please blow it out your embouchures?,” noting that many recordings of Bach’s purported flute sonatas include works transcribed for flute that were originally written for other instruments. To recap: Under the category of works for two or more instruments (BWV 1014–1040), Bach is more or less credited with having written six sonatas for flute and harpsichord, and they are BWV 1030–1035, though there continue to be questions of authorship regarding 1033. Under the category of works for solo instruments other than keyboard (BWV 995–1013), Bach wrote exactly one partita for solo flute, BWV 1013. Anything else is either a transcription of a work Bach scored for another instrument, and/or the piece is not by J. S. Bach. An example is the Sonata in G Minor, BWV 1020, which, regardless of what instrument it was actually written for, is now generally believed to be by C. P. E. Bach.

For a long time it was thought that most, if not all, of J. S. Bach’s authentic flute works were composed during his Cöthen period (1717–1723), during which he provided music for the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. But the odd thing is that the Prince—unlike King Frederick the Great of Prussia with whom Bach had later a later encounter—didn’t play the flute; so it’s not known if there was a virtuoso flutist at the court for whom Bach wrote these works or, as more recent research has suggested, they were composed much later, during Bach’s Leipzig period, specifically sometime in the 1730s. The scoring hints at a later date as well, for the sonatas call for the new transverse flute as opposed to the Blockflöte—i.e., recorder.

Paulina Fred is a name I’ve not encountered before, but she is joined here by one of my favorite harpsichordists, the wonderful Aapo Häkkinen, whose recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and other harpsichord works I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing in previous issues. On Fred, I’ve not found much information at all. She doesn’t seem to have a web site, and no details are offered on the sales sheet that accompanied this download. I suspect her biography and career particulars are given in the booklet that accompanies the CD. From her photo, she appears to be quite young, and Volume 1 of her recordings of Franz Xaver Richter’s flute sonatas was reviewed by Barry Brenesal in 34:5. He tells us nothing about Fred either, possibly for the same reason I can’t tell you anything; there’s nothing to tell. That review appeared almost six years ago. You’d think by now Fred would be represented by a press agent or would have hired a web design programmer to put together a web site for her. Most artists these days do have one.

Fred and Häkkinen stick to the six standard, assumed-to-be-authentic flute sonatas, BWV 1030–1035, but their recording of them comes with an unusual twist, one I’m not sure you’ll encounter on any other recording. Instead of performing all six works on the same flute and harpsichord, the players use different instruments as follows: a) A flute by Martin Wenner (2011) after Carlo Palanca (c. 1690–1783). Palanca was primarily a maker of bassoons, but his transverse Baroque flutes were made of ebony and had six finger holes and a single key. Fred plays this instrument in BWV numbers 1030 through 1034. b) A flute by Claire Soubeyran (2006) after Brussels maker Godfridus Adrianus Rottenburgh (1709–1790). His flutes appear similar to Palanca’s, but instead of being made of ebony, they’re made of natural or stained boxwood. They also have six finger holes and a single silver key. Fred plays this flute in BWV 1035 only. c) A harpsichord by Frank Rutkowski & Robert Robinette (1970) after Hieronymus Albrecht Hass (1689–1752). He was a Hamburg maker who, as you can see by his dates, was Bach’s almost exact contemporary. Apparently Hass was a bit of an experimenter. It’s said that only one of his surviving instruments is of normal disposition. According to American harpsichord maker Frank Hubbard, Hass lengthened the sounding board to 2.58 meters, strung one instrument with the unusual disposition of 8’, 8’, 8’, 4’, and in some instances, used a 16’ set of strings, an octave below the standard 8’ pitch. Specifications for the Rutkowski & Robinette copy Häkkinen plays on this recording are not given, but he uses it for BWV numbers 1030, 1031, and 1034. d) A Martin Kather harpsichord copy (2011) after unnamed Italian originals is heard in BWV 1032. e) A lute-harpsichord by Jonte Knif & Jukka Ollikka (2014)—no “modeled-after” is identified—is heard in BWV 1033. f) Finally, a clavichord by Jiři Vykoukal (2010) after Schiedmayer—a company that began in the early 1700s making clavichords and harpsichords, retooled to the times to begin making pianos, and is still in business today making glockenspiels and celestas—is heard in BWV 1035.

What makes all of this particularly interesting is that since Aapo Häkkinen changes keyboard instruments more often than Paulina Fred changes flutes, we get to hear the same flute against different keyboards

BWV            Flute                    Keyboard

1030            Wenner            Rutkowski & Robinette

1031            Wenner            Rutkowski & Robinette

1032            Wenner           Kather

1033            Wenner           Knif & Ollikka (lute-harpsichord)

1034            Wenner            Rutkowski & Robinette

1035            Soubeyran            Vykoukal (clavichord)

Can you tell the difference between these instruments, and does Fred’s Wenner sound different against Häkkinen’s Rutkowski & Robinette than it does again his Kather? The answers are yes and yes. It’s hard to know whether it’s the Wenner or Fred’s playing of it, but the Wenner sounds somewhat piping and shrill against the Rutkowski & Robinette, especially in the flute’s upper register in 1030 and 1031. But in 1032, against the Kather, the Wenner retains its brightness but without its previous edge. To my ear, this is the most pleasing combination, or, perhaps what I should really say is that it comes closest to what I’m used to hearing in recordings of Bach’s flute sonatas and how I prefer them to sound. It’s too bad that the Wenner and Kather come together only once.

Fred’s Soubeyran flute has a rather woodier tone that gives it a recorder-like sound. That, in itself, isn’t disqualifying, but there’s a noticeable degree of distortion or break-up around the notes which is most likely attributable to the instrument itself rather than to Fred or the recording. She plays the Soubeyran in the E-Major Sonata, BWV 1035. I’m not sure if there’s something distinctly different about the keyboard writing in this sonata compared to the others that led Häkkinen to choose a clavichord over a harpsichord—perhaps it’s explained in the booklet, which was not included with this download. I can’t say I’m enamored of the sound, but the Vykoukal clavichord seems to make a compatible partner to the Soubeyran flute, and in matters of scholarship and musical judgement, Häkkinen’s instincts are rarely wrong.

In the C-Major Sonata, BWV 1033, Häkkinen turns to the lute-harpsichord, an instrument which seems to be as elusive as the Yetti. The literature is filled with references to this chimerical creature, yet, according to an article at baroquemusic.org/barluthp.html, not a single such instrument survives. In theory, the lute-harpsichord was a hybrid, at its core a harpsichord, but one that had been gimmicked by means of gut vs. wire stringing, stop levers, and resonators attached below the sounding board, to imitate the sound, not just of a lute, but of a theorbo, chitarrone, archlute, and harp. Such instruments really did exist, for an inventory of Bach’s possessions at the time of his death lists two lute-harpsichords, three harpsichords, one lute, and a spinet.

Since there are no surviving examples of the lute-harpsichord, according to the above-cited source, it makes sense that there is no “modeled after” given for the instrument played by Häkkinen on this recording. The builders, Knif & Ollikka, would have had to construct it from existing drawings and diagrams. The sound is quite lovely, actually, and different from the more metallic plucking sound one gets with the common lute stop on a regular harpsichord. This sound is softer, mellower, and almost legato in its smoothness. Fred’s Wenner is a winner here. In fact, I’d have to say that the two winning combinations on this program are Fred’s Wenner with Häkkinen’s Kather in BWV 1032, and the Wenner with the Knif & Ollikka lute-harpsichord in BWV 1033.

Paulina Fred sounds to me like a very talented flutist. Her technique in the fast movements is impeccable and her breath control in slow movements is impressive. There are some burbles and imperfections, as noted above, but I attribute these mainly to the design of her instruments, which is a far cry from today’s modern flute and quite difficult, I’m sure, to manage.

There doesn’t seem to be much point in comparing these performances to those available on other recordings, of which there is a multitude to choose from. I would recommend this one for excellent playing, of course, but even more perhaps for its uniqueness in presenting Bach’s flute sonatas in combinations of different instruments. But I would probably not recommend it as a first and only version, precisely because of that uniqueness. One might prefer as a first choice a recording in which the same instruments are used throughout.

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