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Concert Preview: EMG presents Cohan – Shangrow Duo on First Tuesdays Series

October 27, 2009

On Tuesday, November 3, the Cohan-Shangrow Duo will perform at 7:30pm at Trinity Parish Hall, 609 Eighth Avenue, Seattle.  This is the third concert of EMG’s second season of its First Tuesdays concert series.  For more information about First Tuesdays and the artists of the Cohan-Shangrow Duo, please click here.  Tickets will be available at the door, or click here for advance ticket purchase.


Late 18th century flute: note changing diameter between sections.

Late 18th century flute: note changing diameter between sections.


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You might feel you love Johann Sebastian Bach as much as the next person and still feel that a program offering all seven of his sonatas for flute and harpsichord in one sitting might be a bit much for you. But you would be wrong, says flutist Jeff Cohan, and he knows what he’s talking about.

With his recital partner, harpsichordist George Shangrow, he’s played the entire Bach gamut literally hundreds of times for audiences around the world. “In fact, if you sat down to put together a program of the most diverse flute music of the entire period, you would probably end up with an all-Bach recital anyway. Nobody would ever say that the six “Brandenburg” concertos are too much alike to play on the same program.”

The sonatas fall into two contrasting groups from the get-go. Four of them were composed for flute and harpsichord “obbligato,” which here means “with the right-hand part fully written out,” making this sub-set essentially sonatas for two melody instruments, not just one. The remaining three sonatas are written for flute and bass alone, but that doesn’t make them simpler. “It just means that I can improvise the right hand part to fill out the texture,” says Shangrow. Pause. “I tend to fill it in a lot.”

The sonatas are also contrasting in scale. “The b minor sonata is the largest and also the most ambitious musically,” says Cohan, “four movements of Bach at his most serious and experimental, with jig finale that is actually bizarre in its syncopation. The C major by contrast is apparently simple, gracious and melodious. Between them the sonatas span the whole range of early 18th century music from the ‘old-fashioned’ contrapuntal idiom that Bach perfected to the galant and courtly style that made his sons famous.”

Because several of the sonatas don’t exist in manuscripts in Bach’s own well-known hand, some scholars have even insisted that they are too “advanced” in style to be the old man’s work, and are really by one of his progeny. “I can’t prove they aren’t,” says Cohan, “but they can’t prove they are, either. And I can say that if you put them next to similar music by Carl Phillip Emmanuel or Wilhelm Friedmann, the difference sticks out at you.”

Recorders and “transverse” flutes in the modern style co-existed in Bach’s day, but the latter were inexorably encroaching on the former, due both to changing music tastes and progress in instrument-making technology. “Transverse flutes existed in the renaissance, but they sounded and fingered quite differently, because they were simple cylindrical tubes stopped at one end. As the 18th century progressed, flute-builders discovered that making flutes in sections allowed them to make parts of the tube conical, which turned out to produce a bigger and much richer sound.” In fact, the modern flute depends more on that discovery than on all the elaborate system of keys that were added later.

The growing popularity of the flute didn’t depend only on improved technology: Fashion played a large part too. From 1740 on, the most famous flute-player in Europe was not a touring virtuoso like Johann Joachim Quantz but the his Imperial Majesty Friedrich, Elector of Brandenburg and Emperor of Prussia. The day he ascended to the throne, in fact, Friedrich sent for Quantz to tutor him and kept him like a pet until he died.

Friedrich’s influence as a flute player has long outlived him. “He discovered that the flutes he had made for him sounded much better and richer when they were built to a lower pitch than was customary in Europe: a full whole tone lower, in fact. And since he was the emperor, all the musicians in his court tuned down to him rather than the other way around.”

This would be only a historical curiosity but for one thing. “I’ve played hundreds of flutes,” says Cohan, “and it’s just plain fact that period reproductions of flutes built to Friedrich’s specifications do sound better. People have tried everything to reproduce their sound while tuning them to modern pitch. It just doesn’t work.” When you hear Cohan and Shangrow traverse the Bach flute repertory next month, you will be hearing them at Friedrich’s pitch, not Bach’s. Sometimes, if rarely, emperors get things right.  – Roger Downey

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