Frederick “the Great” Sonatas CD Receives Critical Acclaim

“The Hungaroton performances . . . are uniformly first-rate.” –

Frederick the Great of Prussia: Flute Sonatas Nos. 126, 146, 182, 184, 189, 214 and 261. Mary Oleskiewicz, flute; Balázs Máté, cello; David Schulenberg, fortepiano. Hungaroton. $19.99.

“Even in Bach’s own time, analysts, including other composers, were trying to determine the key to his unusually sublime and effective style. Johann Joaquin Quantz, for example, attributed the effectiveness of Bach to his seamless mingling of Italian and French stylistic elements, saying that Bach’s choice of the best elements of different countries’ musical styles produced Bach’s unique German one. Quantz (1697-1773) had his own ideas of style, especially as it related to the flute, for which he composed hundreds of concertos and sonatas and about which he wrote a highly respected treatise that is still used for information on performance practices of the 18th century. Quantz is nowadays as well-known as the flute teacher, flute maker and court composer to Frederick II of Prussia, known as Frederick the Great (1712-1786), as for his own poised and graceful compositions. The monarch himself, often spoken of as a highly skilled flute performer until tooth loss and gout-related hand swelling compromised his technique (he stopped playing altogether in 1780), is almost totally unknown as a composer.

A new Hungaroton CD of seven of Frederick the Great’s flute sonatas – all of them world première recordings – makes it possible to judge Frederick’s accomplishments in composition, and shows him in quite a favorable light. None of the sonatas breaks any major new ground, and all of them pretty much follow Quantz’s models, but they are uniformly well-made and contain their share of surprises – a striking B-flat minor flourish to open No. 182 in B-flat major, for example. Like Quantz, Frederick composed in keys more remote than the usual ones used for the flute in the 18th century, and he had some fondness for minor ones: four of the seven sonatas on this disc are in minor keys. (Bach’s Musical Offering, dedicated to Frederick, is in C minor, and the virtuosic trio sonata within it was written for Frederick to play the flute part – indicating that the monarch had considerable ability as a performer.) The Hungaroton performances – which use a tuning of A=385Hz, even lower than that used in the new Academy of Ancient Music and Concerto Köln discs – are uniformly first-rate. And they use instruments carefully created as replicas of those of Frederick’s and Bach’s time – indeed, Mary Oleskiewicz’s flute is based on one made by Quantz. The chance to hear Frederick the Great’s flute sonatas performed so well and with such a focus on historic instruments and practices is one not to be missed by anybody interested in music created in Bach’s time by a monarch of rare musical talent.

See details of this recording in my discography.

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