Sometimes it is good to be king.
Frederick II, or “Frederick the Great” (1712-1786), may not have wanted to be king of Prussia, but that title and a little enlightened despotism allowed him to establish an impressive musical scene at his Potsdam court. A flutist and occasional composer in his own right, Frederick employed some of the best composers and musicians from across Europe and hosted concerts every evening at his castle, Sans Souci (while packing his flute and a fold-up harpsichord for military campaigns). This past weekend (I reviewed last night’s performance in Boston), period instrument ensemble Musicians of the Old Post Road celebrated Frederick’s tercentennial with a program inspired by his royal jam sessions.
As the program notes to MOPR’s “Fit for a King: Frederick the Great at 300” concert explain, Frederick was a gifted flute virtuoso with conservative tastes. Works such as the Trio Sonata in G (QV2:Anh.19) by Frederick’s flute teacher Johann Joachim Quantz and Frederick’s own Sonata 11 in D minor for Traverso and Continuo leave plenty of room for the musical monarch’s chops, with tuneful, fairly predictable and ultimately unmemorable melodies. The Quartet in G from Sans Souci bassist Johann Gottlieb Janitsch was livelier, yet illustrated Frederick’s preference for one affect per movement and counterpoint, rather than the melodious, emotionally packed empfindsamer style then in vogue.
Leave it to MOPR to add passion to these otherwise merely charming works. Saturday afternoon at Old South Church in Boston, flutist Suzanne Stumpf’s breathy tone and warm phrasing enhanced Quantz’s trio sonata, especially in the first movement Vivace. Sarah Davol’s oboe d’amore matched Stumpf with similarly airy textures. The continuo team of Daniel Ryan on cello and Michael Bahmann on harpsichord delivered steadily driving support here and throughout the program, with an especially catchy bass line in the closing Allegro and an edgy ground on the slow first movement of Frederick’s sonata. The Trio Sonata in C Major (WV B:XV:53), by Frederick’s Kapellmeister Carl Heinrich Graun was rooted in the opera house, yet sensitive interplay between Stumpf and violinist Sarah Darling added sincerity to Graun’s pleasant but nondescript themes, with an evocative third movement cadenza by Stumpf.
More spirited sounds, such as Franz Benda’s Sonata in E flat for Violin and Continuo (Lee III-41) showed what this group is really capable of. Darling opted for a combination of her own embellishments alongside the florid ornamentation that the virtuoso Benda included in all 34 of his violin sonatas. A ravishing first movement Cantabile was dramatized by Darling audibly (and physically) throwing herself into every phrase and pregnant pause, while the second movement Allegro alternated spunky arpeggios with more lyrical passages. The closing Presto demonstrated both composer and performer’s sense of humor, with buffa-like exclamations over a zigzagging continuo.
Given Frederick’s conservative tastes (and stinginess with salaries), Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach wasn’t the happiest artist on the San Souci payroll. Bach’s quirky, emotionally vacillating style made the Sonata in G Minor for Oboe and Continuo (H549) seem like the odd man out in this concert. Unfortunately, Davol’s honking start on the already hesitating Adagio didn’t help matters, and her blurry lines and lack of expressivity continued to the closing Vivace variations.
Davol blended better with the full quintet for the closing piece by Janitsch. The first movement Adagio’s soft, balanced textures presaged further polite sounds from Frederick’s chamber, until the second movement Allegro Moderato exploded into organic (seemingly improvised) exchanges between the three treble instruments. Frederick apparently enjoyed repeated notes in the bass as well as sudden breaks, since MOPR explored these effects for charged results here and in other works. The concluding Vivace traded decorous lines between the violin and unison winds before racing to a cathartic finale. This work and its performance may not have been as twee as Frederick liked, but the musicians and audience on Saturday were clearly pleased.