December 24, 2014
(++++) ONWARD AND UPWARD
Bach: Sonatas for Flute and Harpsichord, BWV 1030, 1031, 1032, 1034 and 1035. Jean-Michel Tanguy, flute; Kristian Nyquist, harpsichord. Telos Music. $16.99.
Franz Ignaz Beck: Symphonies, Op. 4, Nos. 4-6 and Op. 3, No. 5. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by Marek Štilec. Naxos. $9.99.
Jack Gallagher: Symphony No. 2, “Ascendant”; Quiet Reflections. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.
The liberation of wind instruments was a long process, one toward which stirrings began as far back as Bach’s time. The five Bach flute-and-harpsichord sonatas played by Jean-Michel Tanguy and Kristian Nyquist, on a Telos Music recording of performances from 1997, show Bach undertaking attractive flute writing akin to what appears in some of his cantatas and the Orchestral Suite No. 2 – which, like the three-movement sonata BWV 1030, is in B minor. This sonata, the longest of the five on this CD, requires considerable virtuosity from both flute and harpsichord – the latter assuming far more than a traditional continuo role, at times playing both melody and accompaniment, so that the work sounds in part like a trio sonata. Figurations and counterpoint also appear in the harpsichord, while all the while Bach uses the flute in a very forward-looking manner, treating it with virtuosity befitting sonatas written years in the future. Of the sonatas on this disc, it is this one that most clearly anticipates the increasing role of wind instruments in ensembles. The E minor sonata, BWV 1034, and E major one, BWV 1035, are four-movement works that are somewhat more conventional in terms of harpsichord use, although both still require considerable flute virtuosity. However, this requirement derives more from the transposition of material originally written for violin than it does from passages that appear, like those in BWV 1030, to have been created with the flute in mind from the beginning. The authenticity of the sonata in E-flat, BWV 1031, has long been in doubt, but it certainly sounds more like Bach than like the work of other flute-focused composers of his time, such as Quantz. As for the sonata in A, BWV 1032, part of it is missing – about 45 measures from the first movement – and it is heard here in a completion by Barthold Kuijken, which works quite well and allows the music to flow in an apparently natural sequence. All the sonatas are played elegantly and with some sensitivity to period style, although Tanguy unfortunately uses a modern flute – apparently on the basis that the sonatas were composed at different times, as the flute evolved, and would therefore require use of several period instruments to bring out Bach’s intentions. Playing them that way would have resulted in a more-attractive CD as well as one showing more clearly how the flute, like other wind instruments, gained in prominence over time. But the performances here are quite good enough to stand firmly on their own.
In larger ensembles, winds began to be seen as being on equal footing with strings only in some of Mozart’s works, but Mozart did not compose in a vacuum, and there were others paying increasing attention to winds’ capabilities in the mid-to-late 18th century. Franz Ignaz Beck (1734-1809) is a good example. Beck wrote symphonies only until the mid-1760s, but within his four sets of them, he produced many that combined the influence of the Mannheim school (the Mannheim court orchestra was led by Beck’s teacher, Johann Stamitz) with his own notions of new ways to incorporate winds into symphonies and expand their role. Beck’s symphonies, which he identified by the older term “Sinfonia,” helped lay the groundwork for much that came later. The new Naxos CD of Beck’s works – the label’s second recent release of his symphonies – includes the last three of the Op. 4 set (No. 4 in three movements, Nos. 5 and 6 each in four) and the fifth of the six symphonies from Op. 3 (a three-movement work). Beck here shows himself willing to start exploring emotion and drama within individual movements and in the symphonies as a whole. And when it comes to winds, he does something genuinely unusual in Op. 4, No. 6: he includes them in the slow movement – something that audiences came to accept only very gradually, and generally not until years after Beck stopped writing symphonies. There is nothing profound in Beck’s slow movements, which he uses to provide moments of relative rest within works that are otherwise propulsive and forward-looking; but the slower parts of the symphonies help establish the symphonic form as one in which contrast, within an overarching structure, is the driving force. The Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Marek Štilec plays these pieces with fine style, good balance between strings and winds, and enough dramatic flair to show Beck’s largely unknown but nevertheless significant contribution to symphonic development in the 18th century.
By the 20th and 21st centuries, of course, the use of winds as full partners in orchestral scoring is a foregone conclusion. But there are still some composers who handle them better than others do. The wind writing of Jack Gallagher (born 1947) is particularly felicitous, as a new Naxos CD of his Second Symphony and meditative Quiet Reflections shows. The winds in Quiet Reflections (1996) are handled with particular skill and attentiveness, in a piece whose unashamed lyricism and adherence to tonality produce a feeling of reflection and thoughtfulness – in a way that modern minimalist music, which oftentimes is merely boring, does not. Gallagher’s fusion of today’s compositional techniques and harmonic structures with the older preoccupation of communicating with the audience is highly attractive. JoAnn Falletta and the London Symphony Orchestra handle Quiet Reflections with emotional surety and particularly fine attention to nuance – of which this work has a considerable amount. Interestingly, elements that are momentarily reminiscent of other composers’ music – the opening bell perhaps as the calm inverse of the bell in the finale of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, and a section toward the end that almost sounds like a reflection of Ives’ The Unanswered Question – are subsumed within a style recognizable as Gallagher’s own, one that reflects some earlier works without slavishly imitating them. Gallagher’s “Ascendant” symphony (2010-2013) also bears his personal stamp, although its rather prodigious length (63 minutes, including a 21-minute first movement) is a bit much for its thematic material to bear. The symphony is clearly constructed and well-crafted, and very well-played, but some sections drag and others seem to lead the ear in one direction before giving way, seemingly rather arbitrarily, to sections going elsewhere. The sprawling first movement contains so many elements that it has four codas; the effect is that just as it seems to be concluding a musical argument, it moves to the next one instead. The second, shortest movement, a scherzo marked “Playfully,” has an arch-like structure that includes a minimalist element that proves Gallagher’s ability to compose in this style and also proves that he knows its limitations: he repeats all other sections of the movement, except for the central one, but does not repeat the minimalist portion. The tripartite slow movement and strongly contrasted finale, in which elements of discord and concord alternate, with agitation and gentleness in conflict until a triumphant conclusion, are both well-planned and effective, with the symphony ending with a sense of upward striving that it also possesses at the start of the first movement but that is largely absent elsewhere. Gallagher’s music is characterized by warmth and an unapologetic appeal to audience emotions, created with clear intellectual understanding but connecting with listeners on a visceral level that does not require profound audience understanding of its techniques or aims. His Second Symphony strives mightily and is, as a whole, a bit overlong and overblown, but it is certainly effective enough in many parts; and Quiet Reflections is a calming and genuinely reflective work that invites listeners to a place of peace and harmony – in both the musical sense and the philosophical one.