Quantz: Flute Concertos

Quantz: Flute Concertos
Greg Dikmans, Elysium Ensemble
Resonus Classics RES10252, 70’37

Concerto in a minor (QV 5,236)
Concerto in F (QV 5,162)
Concerto in G (QV 5,178)
cantabile e frezzante
from Concerto in e minor (QV 5,116)

Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773) is one of those composers who is known to many musicians, but whose music is rarely heard. He is best known for his 1752 treatise Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen (On Playing the Flute), to this day an important reference work for all musicians, not just flautists. He is also known for his 45-years association as flute teacher to Frederick the Great of Prussia, including during his days as Crown Prince under a brutal father who disapproved of his flute playing.

Before joining the Prussian Court as a full-time teacher on Frederick’s accession to the throne in 1740, Quantz had led a relatively typical life as an itinerent musician. He was born in Göttingen, the son of a blacksmith who died when Quantz was 11. Spurning his father’s wish to follow in his trade, the young Quantz started lessons with family members in Merseburg, before becoming one of the town musicians of Dresden as an oboist, where he studied with Zelenka and briefly became an oboist in the Polish Chapel of Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. A lack of advancement let him to switch instruments to the flute. 

Travels took him to Rome, Naples, Paris, London and Berlin, where he was spotted by the Queen of Prussia. His Dresden master, Augustus, wouldn’t let him take the offer of a permanent job in Berlin, but allowed him to visit several times a year to teach flute to the Crown Prince Frederick, finally moving permanently in 1740. 

Flautist Greg Dikmans has clearly done a lot of research into Quantz and his ideas on performance practice and not only described them in detail in the programme notes but explores them in his performance. It needs to be noted than Quantz flute pieces were written for his royal employer, who liked the simple melodies and harmonies of the Galant style and, although clearly an accomplished flautist, was not quite up to a professional standard of technique. That explains why there is so much flute music by Quantz (more than 500 Sonatas and Concertos), but also why it is, frankly, not exactly outstanding. 

There are a number of reasons for this, the technical ability of his employer being just one of them. The idea of the Galant was rooted in ideas of the Enlightenment and its focus on “social behaviour, fashion, public affairs and even the conduct of military campaigns”. Dikmans summarises these notions as “Style: taste, refinement and elegance; Restraint: moderation, delicacy and composure; and Propriety: appropriateness”,  characteristics which Quantz’s Versuch.

One thing it isn’t, despite the record companies publicity, is “Baroque” and it is distracting to listen to it with Baroque-tuned ears. This is refined music for a Royal Court, to be played by the King in sedate company and surroundings, as pictures of the time attest. So, however fine the playing of Greg Dikmans and his small Elysium Ensemble (string quartet plus violone and, curiously, theorbo). My curiosity of the theorbo is because of the known fact that a harpsichord or, later, a fortepiano was used in the original performances. Dikmans’ reasoning for using a theorbo lacks credibility and results in a soundworld that is not that of Quantz. A surprise, given the effort that has gone in the project, which includes playing at the French pitch of A=392 used in the Prussian Court and using a copy of Quantz’s own flute.

It was recorded in a church in Australia, in an acoustic that sounds rather large for the music and the nature of the original performances. An oddity in the CDs crowd-funding credits is that they seem to have been given $500 by “Frederick II – King of Prussia”, a title that hasn’t existed since 1918.

More information and a link to the programme notes can be found here.