Johann Sebastian Bach
Partita for Flute solo BWV 1013
Media Review / Comparison
2014-11-10 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-16 — Brushed up for better readability
Introduction / Collecting the Recordings
This posting is a by-product of another, bigger one, “Telemann: 12 Fantasias for Flute“, just released. Here, I just briefly want to mention my experiences with three recordings of the Partita for Flute solo in A minor, BWV 1013 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). I may return to this music at a later point, possibly with more recordings. I have four additional recordings in my LP collection: one with Maxence Larrieu, two with Peter-Lukas Graf, all on modern Böhm flute, and one with Konrad Hünteler on baroque transverse flute. None of these I currently have on CD. I may or may not add one or the other from these to my CD collection (if they are still available at all).
Pitch & Comparison
I started listening to these interpretations movement by movement, and my first impression was that Janet See appeared to have intonation issues. This turned out to be a “comparison artifact“: when listening to Janet See’s complete interpretation, the intonation was suddenly OK! Things became clear when I checked the pitch and found out that the three recordings are a quarter tone apart: a’ = 392 Hz (Hantaï) vs. a’ = 403 Hz (See) vs. a’ = 415 Hz (Laurin).
I had no problem switching between Laurin and Hantaï: I think that my (Western) ear has no problem switching by a half tone, but the “in-between pitch” with Janet See’s recorder to me initially sounds like “bad intonation” or “bad tuning” relative to either of the other recordings. This perception lasts for more than just the first notes after switching: it may be helpful to “condition the ear” prior to judging a recording at a different pitch!
The Composition — Tempo, Repeats
This is a demanding composition for the transverse flute (traverso, flauto traverso), both in terms of tonal range (d’ .. a”’), as well as in terms pf phrasing / breathing, and tonal jumps, etc.; Bach knew exactly what the capabilities and limitations of this instrument were — and he is exploring these limits in this composition. His score (manuscript available) includes no tempo indications (other than the baroque dance annotations Allemande — Corrente — Sarabande — Bourrée Angloise), and virtually no phrasing or articulation annotation, with the exception of very few ornaments (trills, some rare staccato notation), slurs and fermatas — the rest is up to the artist.
The repeat indications are mostly clear (all movements consist of two parts, all parts have repeat signs. The exception is the second part of the first movement, where maybe the handwriting is not 100% clear. Among the artists in this selection, only Dan Laurin repeats the second part.
Janet See, Davitt Moroney, Mary Springfels
Harmonia mundi France 907024.25 (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ / © 1991
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Recording & Artist
The recording with Janet See is the oldest one in this quick comparison, recorded in 1991, released as part of a complete recording with all of Bach’s Flute sonatas (including works where it is unclear whether they are really Bach’s compositions), together with Davitt Moroney (harpsichord) and Mary Springfels (viola da gamba). Janet See plays a transverse flute by Folkers & Powell, Claverack, NY, after a historic instrument by Thomas Lot, 1737. The instrument is tuned to approx. a’ = 403 Hz (around 1.5 half tones below a’ = 440 Hz).
Janet See is an American soloist that spent 12 years in Europe (London), where she played in several orchestras, under conductors such as John Eliot Gardiner and Andrew Parrott; back in North America, she plays with various orchestras specializing in baroque music.
Janet See’s intonation is fine, and the tone is nice, soft in articulation, yet with some “grainy substance” to the tone itself, maybe occasionally lacking some density (having “too much air”), but that may well be a property of the instrument.
However, her interpretation falls short in several ways:
- Her playing is rather short-breathed. There are almost no rests for breathing: to me, this becomes a sticky issue here because Janet See tends to “sit down” in breathing pauses.
- This very often entirely disrupts the musical flow.
- On top of that, Janet See tends to start virtually all phrases on the first beat. This primarily makes listening to her interpretation somewhat of a boring experience. Also, I very much doubt that this is musically correct: three of the movements start with an upbeat, not infrequently, melodies or motifs are left without their final notes / closing (2-1, 7-1, etc.). Some melodies / phrases are simply broken apart. Marc Hantaï may have bigger lungs, but still, his interpretation is a living proof that there are better ways to breathe and phrase in these pieces.
- In the fast movements (especially in the Corrente with its rapid tone repeats), she slows down for some of the tricky passages, taking up the tempo again after such passages. This may have been done in order to allow for proper, detailed articulation in these sections, but the net effect is that the listener gets the impression that the artist had to slow down due to technical problems. If this was indeed the case, it might have been better to do the entire movement at a slower pace (but then again, a Corrente implies a vivid, fast tempo);
- Finally, to me, the Sarabande is much too fast, has too much unrest. In Bach’s time, this was a slow movement, a slow dance, maybe, but nevertheless calm, contemplative — here it is close to an Andante.
For all these reasons, I can’t really recommend this interpretation. Rating: 3.0
Marc Hantaï, Pierre Hantaï, Jérôme Hantaï, Ageet Zweistra
Virgin classics 5 45350 2 (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ / © 1999
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Recording & Artist
The most recent recording among the three (1999) is with Marc Hantaï and includes the flute sonatas BWV 1030 (B minor) and BWV 1032 (A major), as well as the trio sonata in G major for flute, viola da gamba and basso continuo, reconstructed from BWV 1027 and 1039; the other musicians for these additional works are Jérôme Hantaï (viola da gamba), Ageet Zweistra (cello), and Pierre Hantaï (harpsichord). Marc Hantaï plays a traverso by Alain Weemaels, after I.H. Rottenburgh, Brussels, ca. 1725. This instrument is tuned to approx. a’ = 392 Hz (a full tone below a’ = 440 Hz).
Marc Hantaï is a pupil of Barthold Kuijken and now teaches at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basel, Switzerland; he frequently plays in baroque chamber music formations, together with his brothers Jérôme and Pierre.
Marc Hantaï’s interpretation is stunning:
- First, there’s so much more expressivity and drive in this piece that is hardly comparable to the interpretation above.
- His tone is full and dense (vibrato is used sparingly used, is very harmonic, never too conspicuous).
- The artist appears to play endless phrases (often covering two lines, if not more). He may be gifted with a long breath—but at the same time, he knows where to breathe! His phrasing makes much more sense, plus, many breathing “stops” are hardly noticeable at all, and they never disrupt the flow of a phrase or melody.
- His virtuosity on this baroque instrument (still at an early evolutionary stage) is amazing. He appears to have no technical problem at all in this demanding piece.
- His tempo selection makes sense. The fast movements are as fast as expected, but never rushed or pushed, the Sarabande is calm. One could of course say that it’s the tempo that everybody expects, but that alone cannot be a reason to select a different (slower or faster) tempo.
My only (minor) critical remark is with the recording technique: in general, I like “artisanal” recordings that expose “the making of music” more than a typical listener in a concert hall might perceive. I like the idea of hearing fingering, blowing noises, bow noises with string instruments, even some amount of mechanical noise with mechanical instruments such as organs. However, here, I think the microphone was placed a little too close to the artist’s mouth: some may find the player’s “hlp” noises (at the end of breathing in, before blowing the next note) occasionally somewhat irritating (maybe I should not have mentioned this, because once you start looking for this, it becomes more conspicuous!).
Still: even from this very limited comparison I dare say that this has all qualities of a reference recording — strongly recommended! Rating: 5.0
Dan Laurin, recorder
BIS-CD-675 (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ / © 1994
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Recording & Artist
Finally, Dan Laurin included the Partita BWV 1013 on a bonus CD with the recording of the 12 Fantasias for flute by Georg Philipp Telemann, see my posting “Telemann: 12 Fantasias for Flute” for details and general remarks on Dan Laurin’s recorder playing. Laurin plays a voice flute (tenor recorder) in d’ (a’ = 415 Hz), by Frederick Morgan, Daylesford, Australia, after an instrument by Peter I. Bressan. The recording was made in 1994.
The last recording in this comparison is on recorder: clearly not the composer’s original intent, though the tonal range of the baroque transverse flute just about matches the one of a voice flute (tenor recorder in d’), the lowest note being a d’. The final a”’ in the Allemande is a challenge on the traverso, and much more so on the recorder: it can only be played with extreme pressure / volume (the liner notes include a warning that this note may damage the listener’s ears if the volume is not adjusted accordingly!).
From an interpretative point-of-view, Dan Laurin‘s recording is close to Marc Hantaï’s version above, featuring excellent articulation and phrasing, long phrases (the recorder requires less air than a transverse flute), good tempi, virtually no vibrato, and a beautiful tone. OK, that final a”’ in the Allemande is mainly loud, but at least it is still clean and clearly articulated. This piece also profits from Laurin’s tendency towards legato playing / broad articulation. In some ways this puts it close to the sound of a transverse flute, even though the sound characteristics of a recorder are of course quite different, the sound having a clearer definition, being more linear (less flexible) and somewhat rougher, the articulation clearer, “sharper”.
The difference to a traverso seems bigger here than in the Telemann Fantasias. Somehow, Bach’s composition appears to be more specific to the designated instrument than Telemann’s (and hence less “transportable” / transferable). As mentioned, Laurin is the only one in this comparison to repeat the second part of the first movement (Allemande); the autograph is not entirely clear on this.
A very nice, recommended recording and interpretation — even though I still prefer Marc Hantaï’s interpretation on the flauto traverso. Rating: 4.0
As I have done in other posts, let me add a table with durations here:
The duration is in seconds (minutes for the last line). There are two duration columns, whereby the first one is the actual track duration, the second one is re-calculated for an equal scheme of repeats: Laurin repeats the second part of the first movement, the others don’t. Colors in that second column indicate relative duration. Blue indicates long/slow(er), green indicates short/fast(er). The rating uses a range of 1 .. 5, as usual.