Two of America’s finest baroque musicians, flutist Stephen Schultz and harpsichordist Jory Vinikour, have teamed up to record J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Flute and Harpsichord (Music & Arts). Available in both CD and hi-rez 24/96 formats, this sparkling collection of four sonatas was recorded in Skywalker Sound’s “The Scoring Stage,” whose variable acoustics were adjusted for maximum reverberation by Jack Vad (recording engineer and producer of San Francisco Symphony’s recordings) and Dann Thompson (one of the in-house engineers at Skywalker). Executive Producer Kit Higginson did the editing, and Vad the producing.
The first thing to know about this recording is that while authentic baroque performance includes the interpolation of decorative ornaments, cadential trills, and other improvisatory elements, both the flute and harpsichord obbligato (accompaniment) parts were written out in full. Hence, what sets these performances apart from the many others in the catalog are the skills and taste of the musicians, the choice of tempi, authentic baroque pitch (A = 415), sound quality, and the use of copies of authentic instruments (a wooden flute for Schultz, and a copy of a 1722 German harpsichord for Vinikour). Hearing these two men discuss this recording is enlightening.
For authenticity and sound, this recording jumps way ahead of classic interpretations by Rampal and others, and provides one of the clearest examples “on record” of the sound of Bach’s music as performed during his lifetime.
In addition, only two of these sonatas for flute and harpsichord, Sonata in b, BWV 1030 and Sonata in A, BWV 1032, were definitely composed by Bach. Of the two other sonatas on the program that were long attributed to the master, Sonata in E-flat, BWV 1031 may have been composed by Quantz, Graun; if it was composed by Bach, he may have consciously emulated a trio by Quantz. Sonata in g, BWV 1020 could have been composed by any number of people, including Quantz and J.S. Bach’s son, C.P.E. Bach.
Finally, the recording offers a fine test for your system. Any set-up that robs Schultz’s flute of its intrinsic glowing warmth, or makes Vinikour’s harpsichord sound brittle, is in need of, at the minimum, a tune-up.
Beyond all that is the music itself, which is wonderful. It’s easy to fall in love with the lyric grace of the B minor sonata’s second movement Largo e dolce, and the non-stop virtuosity of its subsequent Presto. Those looking for happier music, as well as folks who are under the mistaken impression that everything Bach wrote is serious and churchy, will hit repeat once they encounter the joyous, head-bobbing Vivace that begins the Sonata in A. Nor do this sonata’s delights end there. Once you hear the grace of its middle movement and the unbridled sparkle of its concluding Allegro, this sonata will likely become a personal favorite.
The Sonata in E-flat s far more sing-songy in its short opening movement, lyrical in its well-known Siciliano, and sweet and upbeat in its concluding Allegro. The Sonata in g begins with delicious rapid flute figures. After a lovely and song-like middle movement Adagio with a touch of longing, it ends with an irrepressibly joyful Allegro. The conclusion’s mimicking repetition between flute and harpsichord obbligato is a special delight. Even Bach lovers who already have numerous recordings of these sonatas in their collections will want to give this one a whirl.
Note that these are not the only recently released hi-rez period instrument performances of Bach sonatas that showcase Vinikour’s artistry. He has recently joined his longtime friend and colleague Rachel Barton Pine to record Bach’s Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord for Cedille in both 2-CD and hi-rez formats. As such, these recording comes into direct competition with recent hi-rez efforts from Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout for Harmonia Mundi, and from Lucy Russell and John Butt for Linn. Triple brownie points for the first devoted Stereophile reader who listens to all three recordings back-to-back in hi-rez, and posts a report.