A survey of recordings of J.S. Bach Flute Sonatas

The recordings discussed contain some or all of the following sonatas for solo flute or those accompanied by harpsichord or basso continuo. They were composed during a very fruitful period of Bach’s life while he was resident in Köthen in the employ of Prince Leopold of Anhalt.

Partita in A minor for solo flute BWV 1013

Sonata in B minor for flute and harpsichord, BWV 1030

Sonata in E-flat major for flute and harpsichord, BWV 1031

Sonata in A major for flute and harpsichord, BWV 1032

Sonata in C major for flute and basso continuo, BWV 1033

Sonata in E minor for flute and basso continuo, BWV 1034

Sonata in E major for flute and basso continuo, BWV 1035

In comparison with repertoire for the violin and piano, the flute is the poor cousin. A handful of masterpieces (Mozart and the Bach Sonatas discussed here), some wonderful, modern mainstream sonatas (Prokofiev, Hindemith, Poulenc, Martinu), a couple of pretty good concerto commissions, followed by a bucketful of Baroque sonatas and the inevitable French conservatoire repertoire.

From what I’ve heard, playing masterpieces is fun. And difficult. It shows the true measure of the musician. A famous story of a flutist playing this repertoire is James Galway’s audition for the Berlin Philharmonic. Auditioning in front of the orchestra and with von Karajan at the piano, the conductor was in no mood for a modern French concerto. ‘Jimmy, put away the Ibert (a very difficult and quite awful concerto) and play Mozart’. It was the great 2nd Concerto, in fact. Yes, these gentle, perfect notes say more about a flutist than most. In a smaller form, the Sonatas of Johann Sebastian Bach are the same. Exquisite, demanding, impossible. If the Mozart Concertos are our Everest, the Bach Sonatas are K2. Both demanding feats of skill, breathing, technique, and most of all, musicality, to conquer.

It was my flute ‘playlist’ filled with Bach that was the inspiration for this survey. On longer journeys in the BMW, it was the loveliest of accompaniments. Even in the noisy confines of a car, I began to listen quite closely to the variables in each set. Intoxicated by the gorgeous music, I began locking myself in my music studio for hours on end to continue the listening sessions. The immersion was quite eye opening.

The sets of Sonatas are presented on various models of flutes. Modern silver or gold flute with piano, the same with harpsichord, modern wooden flute with piano or harpsichord, and Baroque flute with harpsichord. Cello is added at times to the basso continuo.

For obvious reasons, I’m partial to the modern flute, although do enjoy the artistry of some of the wonderful Baroque flutists. If you’re up for A=415, I thought the most musical and technically gifted artist with the most beautiful sound was Barthold Kuijken. Because of the limitations of the Baroque instrument, I think the greatest artists on modern flutes bring more colour and style. But, Kuijken has much to offer. The wonderful Wilbert Hazelzet would be a good alternative (Archiv 471656). Great Baroque flutists like Rachel Brown have yet to record them. Some other Baroque flutists on record exemplify what my conducting teacher tersely suggested about early instruments: ‘..an excuse to play out of tune!’.

During the two months listening to many (all?) recordings, I came across only a few that were not up to the highest standards. One was part of a compilation that was truly amateurish in performance and recording (yes, it’s on iTunes) and, surprisingly, a couple of superstar flutists were quite disappointing. Maybe time constraints or they simply had a bad day at the office. Conversely, some self published performances, air checks, and older recordings I found fascinating and delightful. Chief among the latter was the fantastic set by the late, great Elaine Shaffer, wife of conductor Efrem Kurtz. Shaffer was a very musical player who died of cancer before she was fifty and shortly after completing the Bach recording. Shaffer loved Bach and it shows. The lines develop beautifully and nothing is forced. Shaffer’s recording would be one to look for. Mine is on a treasured LP.

Shaffer’s musicality and appropriate tone serve to highlight the major difficulties interpreting these works. Sound and style. The modern flute begs for vibrato. Without, it can sound like a tin pipe. But, Bach needs care. Some of the flutists rush through the lines, treating them as virtuoso vehicles. I’m no fan of a Baroque flute style played on a modern flute, but vibrato and intensity do not have to be switched on all the time. Many fine teachers and performers I know despair at the lack of subtlety and sophistication in modern flute playing. Grading the sound, a subtle use of vibrato, and the use of a true dynamic range need a lot more attention. As flutists, we’ve played far too much repertoire aiming only for the back of the hall. Guilty!

With this in mind, the performances can be characterized into several camps. (1) Some are unapologetic about their modern metal flute and use the Sonatas as exercises for their tone and technique. Initially, they can sound thrilling, but on repeated listening, the single colour/style can hide a more musical line. (2) Then, there are those who attempt the opposite, both with the modern metal flute and wooden flute. What the great American flutist Paula Robison calls ‘fusion style’. Delicacy, gentle tonguing, swells instead of intense vibrato and the use of varied dynamics. I like the style, too, but it also can over stay its welcome. (3) The final camp is my personal favourite. These players know how to manipulate the silver or gold flute (or white gold or platinum) over the wide range of the music so their sound remains even and supple. They know how to play flawlessly in tune and they bring innate musicality to these very famous Sonatas.

Some examples of each style: (1) Jean Pierre Rampal and James Galway, big musical personalities with unique musical voices and distinct timbres. Both great artists’ CDs are lovely with much beautiful playing — but not all in one sitting. Your mileage may vary.

(2) Daniel Pailthorpe (modern wooden flute) and Emmanuel Pahud (gold), are both very fine players that make a case for the more relaxed approach – far less intense, but still very musical. Pailthorpe’s new recording is a mix. Some of the playing is sublime, and some less so. Pahud’s CD is not a clear first choice. His ornamentation is delightful and his prowess on the flute is now the stuff of legend, but at times I feel the essence of the music eludes him. Maybe the Bach Sonatas for flutists are like Beethoven Symphonies for conductors. They take time.

Not all flutists mentioned here play the Sonatas as a complete set. Some Sonatas, like the exquisite C Major, are attributed to other composers (difficult for me to believe) and are omitted. Others leave the Solo Sonata (Partita, as coined much later) out of the mix. An earlier Sonata in G minor also does not get the same amount of attention as the seminal B minor and others.

Even though I have three personal favourite recordings, I do have a wish list. It includes flutists such as Jeanne Baxtresser (I do not think this will happen — I have asked, but not heard back yet), Robert Stallman (I know this is happening) and Chicago Symphony’s Mathieu Dufour (I hope this will happen). Three great flutists who I think would bring a lot to this magnificent repertoire.

In my Bach dreams, I wish other brilliant flutists such as Patricia Lynden (long retired from the Philharmonia and Covent Garden), Geoffrey Gilbert (considered by many the greatest teacher after Moyse and RPO Principal under Beecham), and many other passed orchestral principals such as Maurice Sharp (Cleveland), William Kincaid (Philadelphia), Wolfgang Schulz (Vienna) and Karlheinz Zoller (Berlin) would have had the opportunity. Star flutists and brilliant musicians, all. But most importantly, each possess(ed) completely unique sounds on their flutes. So many flutists’ sounds today are interchangeable. Homogenized.

With the dreaming over and in the here and now, a couple of other recorded sets that I really enjoyed were from American flutists. Paula Robison’s classic set from 1975 (The Bach Guild) features superb fluting let down slightly by the accompanying harpsichord’s registration. I also enjoyed Sacramento-based flutist Laurel Zucker’s very musical set on Cantilena.

Robison has released a more recent set of different Bach Sonatas — the arrangements for flute and harpsichord of the Organ Sonatas. Here, the harpsichordist is in harmony with her and the results are lovely. If you need even more Bach on the flute, her Pergola set contains many beautiful things.

Which brings me to my favourite performances of these masterpieces. Any of which will satisfy as a complete set on CD or chosen one Sonata at a time on iTunes. Musically, they are all so wonderful that they are interchangeable as first choices. Choose either or all with confidence.


3. Julius Baker with Sylvia Marlowe, harpsichord (1947).

2. Elaine Shaffer with George Malcolm, harpsichord (1973).

1. Aurèle Nicolet with Karl Richter, harpsichord (1969).

Julius Baker has the most glorious tone on the flute with only Rampal his equal. It is limpid, achingly beautiful and is captured perfectly in the 1947 recording. This famous record has been released on Naxos, Brunswick, Titanic and Oxford (Baker’s own company). In any guise, it’s a fantastic achievement and set the bar for flutists. Few have matched its consistency and musicality. And in Marlowe, he has a sensitive accompanist.

The previously mentioned Elaine Shaffer recording is in my top three for its glorious HMV recorded sound (audiophiles, you should hear this LP on a well setup turntable and quality cartridge — incredible presence and immediacy), the superb pair of George Malcolm and Ambrose Gauntlett as accompanists, and for Shaffer’s musicality and consistency in interpretation. As movements, they just work. Natural Bach. No affectation. No nonsense.

My personal flute hero I’ve saved for last and is my choice if you can only have one set of this wonderful music. Aurèle Nicolet has the flute sound that I would want to hear if it was my last. He brings this incredible sound and the most perfect vibrato with peak playing to his seminal 1969 set on Arkiv. In those days, if you recorded Baroque music with Karl Richter on Arkiv, you were the Grand Fromage. Nicolet was. And now at 87, he’s still playing the odd concert and teaching. An amazing man. An amazing artist.

As Nicolet can circular breathe, the long phrases that buckle other flutists (and me) are no problem for him. And with this breath control, the musical lines are seamless. Married to this control and sound are consummate musicianship, flawless intonation and the special accompaniment of the late, great Karl Richter. The sound on the Arkiv recording is also first rate.

There you have them — the amazing Bach Sonatas for Flute and Harpsichord or Basso Continuo. Flutists will know them as will lovers of the music of J.S. Bach. If you don’t, I urge you to sample them. You will not find more beautiful music this side of heaven.