Since 1990, the musicians of Flautando Köln have been exciting audiences around the world - from Köln to Korea - with their virtuoso recorder-playing. Christian Deppe talks to Katharina Hess, Susanne Hochscheid, Ursula Thelen and Kerstin de Witt as they look back over the 20-year success story of this well-known German recorder ensemble.

What was the idea behind the founding of Flautando Köln?

Ursula: Although we were serious right from the start, we didn’t originally plan to found a professional concert ensemble which would last 20 years. That only developed over the years. And I think it’s an advantage, that the ensemble has grown over time.

Susanne: When we met, we were four students at the College of Music in Köln. One of the original recorder-players left after nine years, so then Kerstin joined us.

Katharina: The ensemble was formed like many ensembles at the music college, which get together in an ad hoc way. But we decided not to change it for anything. We’ve actually all tried out lots of other groups, but the ensemble stayed together.

Susanne: We enjoyed it and it became more important and more intensive. And with that came the work and our first concerts.

The recorder has an image problem: many people see it as a starter instrument for a musician’s career. Have you sometimes been confronted with that?

Katharina: (laughs) Never heard of this!

Susanne: Yes, of course. And that’s an expression used in many reviews. It says just that, but then people think in concert: ah, but it’s completely different. We benefit from the fact that we almost always exceed the expectations of our listeners. Quite often we hear after concerts “I’d never thought that you could make music like that with the recorder”.

How did you come to the recorder and what makes it so special to you?

Ursula: I always did many musical things, and even thought about studying church music at school. Perhaps I could have chosen singing. But through working with the quartet my love for this instrument definitely grew.

Susanne: In my case, it was the way into a musical world different from the modern classical music business. It’s more experimental and open. And that forces you to be creative.

Katharina: I even thought, no, the recorder lacks repertoire from the great periods in music. But the sound always fascinated me, so I couldn’t change to the flute, for instance.

Kerstin: Many people find it a limitation that there’s no set repertoire to draw on. But that’s actually a big opportunity. In the last few years, we’ve made really great programmes in which we’ve arranged and adapted everything possible.

What do you all have in common that has made this work?

Kerstin: (laughs) Absolutely nothing!

Susanne: We all have fun making music like this, at this level.

Katharina: And in this set-up!

Ursula: We’ve learnt to benefit from our differences. It’s great when we respect the strengths and weaknesses which we each bring to the group.

What defines your individual personalities?

Ursula: I’d say that Kerstin is very creative and ambitious, but also very sensitive. She is open and the first to give in, saying “now there’s only three opinions left”.

Kerstin: Susanne is also very ambitious. And she is the one most likely to drive things forward consistently. Moreover she presents our concerts. Most of the time we listen to her (she laughs) and we’re often astonished that she’s thought of everything.

Susanne: Katharina has her heart in the music, she’s also very creative and takes everything seriously. She’s very persistent and generates lots of momentum.

Katharina: Ursula is not only our singer, but she is our sunshine, our complete optimist, who gets us out of holes.

Susanne: And singing naturally brings its own particular, special colour to the ensemble. For some of our programmes, it’s an essential part, for instance our Christmas programmes, our Spanish Renaissance programme or our recent programme “Newland” in which she sings some Kurt Weill songs.

With so much harmony, do you sometimes argue? Four musicians surely means four opinions?

Susanne: We always know that we have to compromise, and I think each of us knows when we have to hold back.

Kerstin: We’ve learnt that there are always many musical solutions, and that we can argue, but that we have to decide on one. I find that that’s actually a chance to learn from the group.

Katharina: I actually find it quite exciting when the sparks sometimes fly in rehearsal.

Do you work together with other musicians?

Katharina: Yes, above all for our CD work. With Susanne’s husband, a percussionist, with a lute-player, with a countertenor, and also once with a large continuo group. There’s also individual projects with the vocal ensemble Stimmwerck, with a double-bass player, with different orchestras, a story-teller, an actor…

Susanne: For our latest CD of English music from the Tudor period, we also recorded a quintet with Katrin Krauß, who has sometimes played with us, when one of us has been away on maternity leave.

What will be on your next album?

Kerstin: There is a CD of music from the Bach family, mainly Johann Sebastian, but also a piece by Wilhelm Friedemann and Johann Christian.

What must a piece principally contain, in order to be taken up into your repertoire?

Katharina: We must like it. And it must lend itself to being arranged for a recorder quartet. Pulling a piece out of the drawer and being able to play it rarely happens to us, if at all. We arrange a lot, but that takes up lots and lots of time.

You’ve recorded eight CDs and play about 40 concerts a year. Is it not difficult when you live all over the country?

Ursula: Sometimes we spend ages solving logistical problems. Once we chartered a private plane, when we played in the morning with Musica Antiqua Köln in Salzburg and in the afternoon at the Dresden Music Festival. Another time at night, we dashed 800 kilometres by car to the far north, so that we could play a matinee concert the next day in Eutin.

What have been the musical highlights over the 20 years?

Ursula: Some of the recordings and broadcasts for WDR, SWR, MDR, Radio Bremen and German Radio. But also taking part in countless festivals, the Schleswig Holstein Music Festival, the Rheingau Music Festival, MDR Midsummer, Musiktriennale Köln, the Götting Händel Festivals, the Leipzig Bach Festival…

Katharina: And of course the many foreign trips to Korea, the Czech Republic and Taiwan.

Is the recorder known there?

Susanne: Yes, in Taiwan where we last were, I was amazed that the concerts were so well attended, with more than 600 people.

Katharina: We played five concerts in the biggest halls, for instance the National Concert Hall—there’s no hall bigger there. There’s a real recorder-scene, just like in Korea, where we were two years ago.

What is the secret to working together so well and for so long?

Kerstin: I believe it’s an awareness of each other, an awareness that we have, of how great things are.

Katharina: One can’t underestimate how much happiness we feel in playing together in this combination. We value more and more the symbiosis which we four of us create together. We’re all very different, but after all these years we fit in with each other in a wonderful way.

Susanne: Of course we’ve worked at it, but first and foremost it is truly a gift.