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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): "Der Frühling"

Rupert Charlesworth, tenora
Café Zimmermann

rec: April 7 - 10, 2016, Freiburg, Ensemblehaus
Alpha - 257 (© 2016) (63'59")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet Score St John Passion

Der Frühling (Wq 237 / H 723)a; Edle Freiheit, Götterglück (Wq 211,1 / H 669,1)a; Fürsten sind am Lebensziele (Wq 214 / H 761)a; Himmelstochter, Ruf der Seelen (Wq 211,2 / H 669,2)a; Reiche bis zum Wolkensitze (Wq 211,3 / H 669,3)a; Selma (Wq 236 / H 739)a; Sinfonia in a minor (Wq 156 / H 582); Sonata in B flat (Wq 158 / H 584); Sonatina in d minor (Wq 104 / H 463)

Karel Valter, Regina Gleim, transverse flute; Thomas Müller, Lionel Pointet, horn; Pablo Valetti, Mauro Lopes Ferreira, violin; Patricia Gagnon, viola; Petr Skalka, cello; Céline Frisch, harpsichord

It has taken some time before the music written between the baroque era and the classical period was treated really seriously and the music from that period was performed and recorded. Today composers like those who were in the service of the Frederick the Great of Prussia, regularly appear on concert programmes and on disc. However, there is still much to discover and that goes even for the composer who is generally considered the brightest of this period in music history, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. In his time he was especially praised for his keyboard music, much of which was printed, for instance in several collections for Kenner und Liebhaber. Today that part of his oeuvre receives most attention.

It is in particular the vocal output that is still largely unknown. CPO has released various recordings with songs for voice and keyboard. The oratorios are also available on disc and there is also an increase in interest in his Passions. But the vocal items on the present disc are hardly known and shed light on a little-known side of Bach's compositional activities. The programme which is on offer here is quite interesting, although I have not been able to discover its thread. It seems that the pieces have been brought together more or less at random.

Let's start with the vocal items. The catalogue of CPE Bach's works includes quite a number of songs for voice and basso continuo or keyboard. About a century earlier this genre - at that time with bc or lute - was quite popular, partly thanks to Martin Oppitz whose Buch von der Deutschen Poeterey led to a reform of German poetry. Towards the end of the century the genre had declined, mainly due to the increasing popularity of the Italian-style solo cantata. In the first decades after the turn of the century composers even looked down at the genre of the solo song. Things started to change in the 1730s. The ideal of music being 'simple' and 'natural' constituted the breeding ground for the solo song - generally called Ode. The most important collection of solo songs was published in 1741 by Georg Philipp Telemann, the Vier und zwanzig, theils ernsthaften, theils scherzenden, Oden (24 Odes, partly serious, partly playful). He laid down the ideals for such songs: they should have "easy melodies comfortable for almost every throat" and operatic embellishments should be avoided. He used mainly texts by contemporary poets which dealt with subjects like love, wine and nature.

Bach was one of the composers who contributed to the revival of this genre. Most of his songs are sacred in content, others are secular. The present disc includes one specimen: Der Frühling. The opening lines indicate what it is about: "Joy, relished by gods and man, playmate of innocence, some down from that hill to my song or come from this valley, where Spring embraces you". This piece shows that there is no watershed between the sacred and the secular: it includes the line "I sing, O Creator, your praise" and ends thus: "Let all that lives praise the Lord and rejoice in Him". It pervades the same spirit as the texts Handel used for his Deutsche Arien. This song has the form of a cantata: two arias embrace an accompanied recitative which follows the first aria attacca. It was originally conceived as a piece for voice and keyboard, which was later arranged for voice and instruments. The same is the case with Selma, a love song in two stanzas: "She loves! The Chosen One loves me!". This piece is not without some dramatic streaks, though, and that is also the case with Fürsten sind am Lebensziele. The latter piece doesn't not belong among the category of the solo song. It is a late work, dating from 1785; the text is taken from a collection of cantatas by Elise von der Recke. In contrast, the three arias Wq 211 are, in Bach's words, "composed in my youth". Peter Wollny, in his liner-notes, suggests the 1730s, when the composer studied in Frankfurt an der Oder and regularly composed for academic celebrations. These arias are about the same subjects as the songs of the time, as mentioned above. The scoring is for tenor, two transverse flutes and bc, but the performers have taken the freedom to use violins instead.

Rupert Charlesworth has the perfect voice for this repertoire. His diction and German pronunciation are perfect and the text is always clearly understandable. His restraint in the ornamentation department is undoubtedly correct, in the light of what Telemann wrote about the performance of songs, which I referred to above. However, I would have liked him to reduce his vibrato; sometimes it is really too much.

Some of CPE Bach's instrumental music is well-known; that goes in particular for the string symphonies (Wq 182), his flute sonatas and the quartets he composed in the year of his death (Wq 93-95). The three works included here are far less known. The Sinfonia in a minor seems to point in the direction of the string quartet; like the early specimens of this genre the first violin plays a prominent role. The Sonata in B flat is from a collection printed in 1763. One gets the impression at first that this is an example of the classical trio sonata as both instruments are treated on equal footing. However, the frequent passages in parallel motion show its modern character as does the fact that in the middle movement (largo) the violins play with mutes, a frequent practice at the time. In this movement we also find various passages in which the violins play pizzicato.

The Sonatina in d minor is one of a group of twelve such pieces, which were written from 1762 to 1764 and represented an entirely new genre. Bach was the only composer who wrote this kind of works. The scoring for keyboard and orchestra suggests that they were close to the solo concerto, but they follow a different plan. Rather than comprising three movements in the order fast - slow - fast, they either consist of two movements - comparable to many pieces of a diverting nature from the second half of the 18th century - or three movements in the order which was mostly used in sonatas in the mid-18th century, in particular in and around Berlin (moderate - fast - fast). The latter is the case with the sonatina recorded here. It was originally intended for amateurs; the orchestra included two flutes and strings. Here we hear a later reworking for CPE Bach's own use; the keyboard part is more demanding, and two horns are added to the orchestra; they are only involved in the two fast movements.

As these pieces are seldom performed and recorded their inclusion here is most welcome. On top of that they receive outstanding performances. The players of Café Zimmermann have grasped the peculiar idiom of CPE Bach's instrumental works very well. Among the features of his style are the frequent and often unexpected dynamic contrasts. These are perfectly worked out. The instrumentalists are equally convincing in the vocal items.

All in all, this is a very fine disc which once again demonstrates the many qualities of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's oeuvre.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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