Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Complete Flute Sonatas and Partita
Sonata in B minor BWV1030 [18:17]
Sonata in E flat major BWV1031 (attrib. Bach) [10:57]
Sonata in A major BWV1032 [13:01]
Sonata in C major BWV1033 (attrib. Bach) [9:27]
Sonata in E minor BWV1034 [14:55]
Sonata in E major BWV1035 [13:22]
Sonata in G minor BWV1020 (attrib. Bach) [12:23]
Partita in A minor BWV1013 [17:16]
Jennifer Stinton (flute)
Guy Johnston (cello)
David Wright (harpsichord)
rec. 1-2 October 2012, Studio 2, The Warehouse, London, and 22 October 2012, recital Room, The Space, Sevenoaks School (Partita)
ALTO ALC 2022 [51:42 + 57:56]
Jennifer Stinton made a considerable name for herself in the 1980s and 90s through a considerable discography on the now defunct Collins Classics label. Many of these excellent recordings have seen their renaissance through labels such as Alto and Naxos, but this set of J.S. Bach’s sonatas is brand new.
Bach’s sonatas are a sort of ‘Old Testament’ for flautists, and there won’t be a conservatoire student who hasn’t studied them at one time or another. We all have our ideas about how they can and should sound, and there will no doubt be purists who will be against putting the silvery tones of a modern flute against the antique sonorities of harpsichord and cello continuo. I prefer to take each version on its own merits but have to declare at this stage that I came through more or less the same generation of students at the Royal Academy of Music as Jennifer, so my grounding in Bach from teachers like Gareth Morris is more than likely to be in tune with hers. This is not to say that later generations have suddenly gone loopy and taken to performing Bach in radically different ways, but there is something familiar about the phrasing and general aura of these performances which resonates with the way I grew up with them.
Very nicely recorded, there are certainly no nasty surprises in any of these performances in terms of production or performance. It’s easy to gloss over discussion of the faster movements - after all, it’s just a question of switching on that Baroque motor and keeping going until you run out of notes isn’t it? Well, no, and Jennifer Stinton shows how you can maintain musical flow and keep up a high degree of interest and expression in even the busiest of passages. The engine is also well maintained by harpsichordist David Wright and cellist Guy Johnston, both of whose accompanying and obbligato lines are performed with ideal understated expression, forming a chamber music team with the soloist as well as providing support for her expressive nuances. The slow movements are of course the places where expressive playing comes to the fore and Stinton is really rather special here, not only in her beautifully elliptical tone and refinement of phrasing, but in communicating some of Bach’s most luscious melodies. I always remember Gareth Morris’s amused summing-up of his approach to these gorgeous pieces, which went something like: “he fathered about 20 children after all, so I think we’re allowed some sexy thoughts...” There is indeed plenty of sensuality in movements such as the famous Siciliana of BWV 1031, and the dolce is very much to the fore in the slow movements of BWV 1030 and 1032. This is not drippy sentimentality, but red-blooded performing with plenty of meat on the bones and I love it. Where more stately expression is required, such as in the Adagio of BWV 1033 then Stinton switches to a different gear, and the contrasts of expressive worlds between types of movement and between the various sonatas is one of the many strengths of this recording.
Moving on to CD 2, and the opening of that most concerto-like of the sonatas BWV 1034 is toothsome indeed. This is very far from academic musicianship, and if you like your Bach with plenty of zip and sap then this is a great place to find yourself. Contrasts in the harpsichord include use of a damper, put to fine use in the Andante of this sonata. This is switched off after the first section to return for the final reprise - a not so minor detail which lends breadth to the range of timbre here and elsewhere over the whole collection.
Are there any complaints? Not many. The final note of BWV 1030 sags a little right at the end but that’s a very picky comment, as is the little slip about 49 seconds into the massive final Allegro of BWV 1034. This funny little moment pops up again in the same sequence at 1:58 which made me have a peek at my Henle edition just to make sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks. Tsk tsk. We only just make it to the end of the inversion at 3:16 and 4:31 as well, showing just how tricky this music is even now.
The tremendous Partita in A minor BWV 1013 for solo flute is recorded in a different venue, and while the acoustic perspective is not shockingly different to the accompanied sonatas the flute sound is a little more grainy and richer in upper partials. Jennifer Stinton clearly has this music as part of her musical DNA but she makes it sound fresh and engaging, negotiating Bach’s ‘impossible’ first movement with sensibly placed breaths. If I have a quibble here it is that the note at 3:30 sounds much too final, and the repeat is therefore rather unexpected. Any other comments are questions of taste and very personal and subjective, and the only further point I have is that I prefer a lighter playful element to enter into parts the Sarabande, a note of poignant reflectiveness on times past, where Stinton keeps everything weighty and serious throughout.
I did review Liza Beznosiuk’s Hyperion recording of this repertoire a while ago but this is a version played on traverso rather than a modern flute, so I don’t consider this a fair comparison. Neither would I go far in comparisons accompanied by fortepiano, or those which are not a complete survey. There are a few versions with modern flute accompanied by harpsichord and continuo, of which Hansgeorg Schmeiser’s on the Nimbus label is a highly regarded example (see review). This is a direct competitor to Stinton and her team, but I’m not sure I would prefer it on my desert island. The Nimbus recording is gorgeously rich, but Schmeiser’s playing is a bit too unctuous for my taste, certainly less humanly communicative than Stinton, and besides, they race through the BWV 1031 Siciliana in 1:55 flat, which is more a scramble through the bushes than an expression of pastoral air between them.
Booklet notes by Ateş Orga are very good, winning a prize for best use of the word ‘plutoids’ with regard to Bach’s catalogue. It might have been nice to have a personal note from the soloist as well but you can’t have everything. Discussions as to the merits or otherwise of the cover image can be had elsewhere, but I prefer the lunch-laden picture of our friendly looking trio inside the booklet.
Excellent set, well up with the best.
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