It is no surprise to learn that the great English diarist Samuel Pepys was in love with the recorder, “the sound of it being, of all sounds in the world, most pleasing to me.” (April 8th 1611). The recorder certainly has a charm and immediacy which explains why today it is, after the piano, the most widely played of all serious instruments. Yet as a virtuoso instrument it is rarely taken seriously, considered inferior to the flute or the violin in both range and repertoire. This album brings together some 250 years of virtuoso recorder music performed on 10 different recorders copied from various baroque originals, and will show, it is hoped, the altogether surprising capabilities of this classroom toy!
The programme takes the form of a musical arch, beginning and ending with the 17th century Dutch composer Jacob van Eyck, who was one of the leading recorder virtuosi of his time. A blind musician, he worked in Utrecht as carillon player in the Cathedral and in St John’s church, where he was employed also to entertain the visitors to the churchyard with his recorder playing. He composed a huge number of solo pieces for the recorder, mostly variations on psalms and popular tunes of the day, which were published in two volumes entitled ‘Der Fluiten Lusthof’ (1649 and 1654). A third volume, mentioned elsewhere by Van Eyck, has never come to light.
The two pieces chosen for this album are little masterpieces of the art of variation, and give us ample demonstration of Van Eyck’s own virtuosity. The title track, ‘Engels Nachtegaeltje’ (The English Nightingale) is especially interesting in its use of birdsong effects, to which the recorder is singularly well disposed – indeed the instrument’s English name is thought to derive from an archaic usage of the verb ‘to record’, as ‘to sing like a bird’.
Italy was at the centre of musical life in Europe at the turn of the 17th century, and it was here that solo instrumental music appeared for the first time as an art form in itself, unrelated to dance or sacred idioms. One of the innovators of this new style was Giovanni Bassano, a distinguished Venetian musician, cornett virtuoso and ‘Maestro di canta’ at San Marco, who in 1591 published a collection of French Chansons, Madrigals and Motets arranged as solo instrumental pieces (‘for every kind of instrument’) with organ accompaniment. His style, which sprang from the already highly developed art of ‘division’ or ornamentation, was to take the upper contrapuntal voice and decorate it in an elegant and sometimes virtuosic manner, compressing the remaining voices into a single keyboard part. ‘Onques Amour’ is a fine example of this art, based on a beautiful chanson by Thomas Crecquillon.
It was from these beginnings that the instrumental sonata was born, and by the time of Dario Castello some 30 years later it had reached a highly advanced state. Another Venetian musician, director of wind music at San Marco in the 1620’s – little else is known about his life – Castello published his twelve ‘Sonate concertante in Stilo Moderno’ in 1621, followed by a second volume in 1629, from which the present work is taken. Highly operatic in style (no doubt due to the influence of Monteverdi), Castello’s music has an almost rhapsodic quality with its rapid changes of mood and tempo and its outlandish flourishes, which make it seem almost as avant garde today as it must have done in 17th century Venice.
The three 18th century sonatas on this album display the diversity of styles across Europe in the baroque period. William Croft was the organist at the Chapel Royal and at Westminster Abbey, and a distinguished composer of church music. His recorder sonata in G, one of a collection published in 1700, shows a lighter side to his output, taking the form of a set of divisions or variations over a ground bass – so popular in England at the time – and finishing with a rustic gigue.
Arcangelo Corelli was one of the most highly esteemed musicians of his day, a virtuoso violinist and a composer widely admired and imitated for his development of the solo- and trio-sonata. His twelve violin sonatas opus 5, published in Rome in 1700 (where he worked for most of his life in the service of Cardinal Ottoboni), established is international reputation, appearing in numerous editions throughout Europe during the 18th century, including the current arrangement for recorder which appeared in London in 1707. The slow movements of this edition provide a useful illustration of the florid Italian style of ornamentation, with decorations written out by ‘an eminent Master’.
Arrangements such as this were entirely acceptable in the baroque period – rarely were composers fussy over such matters as instrumentation, often being more concerned to expand their sales by authorising versions for different instruments. It was common practise therefore to adapt flute sonatas for the recorder, generally by transposing up a minor third. As Bach wrote no solo music specifically for the recorder we have adapted his great E minor flute sonata thus. This work, probably written in Cothen around 1720, is a baroque masterpiece of the highest order.
Whilst Bach is today recognised as one of the greatest composers of all time, his contemporary Georg Philipp Telemann was held in far higher esteem in their lifetime, and was one of the most prolific composers of the age, producing more works than Bach and Handel combined! He had a unique ability to combine different styles, from the Italianate style of Corelli (whom he very much admired) to the French ‘gallant’ style – and even the rustic folk music of Poland. His twelve fantasias for solo flute first appeared in 1732, and display his cosmopolitan flair to the full.
And so we come to the apex of our musical arch, and in doing so lift the recorder out of its normal baroque habitat into the salons of 19th century Vienna. Ernst Kraehmer was undoubtedly the greatest recorder virtuoso of his day, performing on a now obsolete member of the recorder family known as a ‘czakan’, of Hungarian origin. The czakan existed in many forms, some very similar to the baroque recorder, and others, like Kraehmer’s own instrument, with a quite elaborate system of keywork. The instrument was generally pitched in A-flat, and the two pieces on this album have been transposed respectively down and up a third to fit on treble and descant recorders.
Kraehmer’s early professional life was as an oboist with the Vienna Imperial Theatre, a position he left in 1822 to undertake acclaimed concert tours throughout Europe, performing his own dazzling compositions (including, one can assume, the Concert Polonaise and Rondeau Hongrois), in a style which might posthumously earn him the title ‘Paganini of the Recorder’!