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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): Quartets Wq 93 - 95


rec: August 2020, Bever (B), B&B Rosario
Alpha - 759 ( 2021) (57'26")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Quartet in a minor (Wq 93 / H 537); Quartet in d minor (Wq 94 / H 538); Quartet in G (Wq 95 / H 539); Sonata in A 'Prussian Sonata' No. 6 (Wq 48,6 / H 29) (arr R Pharo) (adagio); Sonata in A (Wq 65,32 / H 135) (arr R Pharo) (andante con tenerezza)

Anna Besson, transverse flute; Louis Creac'h, viola; Robin Pharo, viola da gamba; Jean Rondeau, harpsichord

Even before Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach reached the status of fashionable composer, his three quartets for keyboard, transverse flute and viola attracted the attention of performers. They are Bach's last chamber music works and date from the year of his death.

In his chamber music Bach was mostly considerably more modest with regard to exposing the features of the two elements which are so characteristic of his compositional style: the Empfindsamkeit and the Sturm und Drang. He composed many sonatas for the then increasingly fashionable transverse flute with a basso continuo part, linking up with the tradition which had been established in the baroque period and in which he had been brought up by his father. This can be explained from the fact that such sonatas were written for the market of musical amateurs. However, in his last years Bach was not concerned anymore about music which was marketable. These quartets are different as stylistically they point in the direction of the classical piano trio. Moreover, the technical requirements and the scoring for a keyboard with two equal keyboard parts and a part for viola makes them rather unsuitable for amateurs of those days.

The scoring has always been a subject of debate. Bach called them quartets but then only mentioned three instruments on the title page. In his personal catalogue he added "and bass". There are various theories about this. Some believe that the term "quartet" only refers to the number of parts, and point out that the right and left hand of the keyboard are treated on equal terms. This contrasts with what was common in works for keyboard solo and for keyboard with instruments, in which the left hand was confined to an accompanying role which could then be supported by a string bass. Others think - especially considering Bach's description in his own catalogue - that the addition of a cello is expected without mentioning it, just like the use of a string bass in a basso continuo part was never indicated. The cellist could simply follow the left hand of the keyboard and now and then add something of his own.

We could consider a third option. Maybe Bach wanted to leave it to the performers to decide whether or not to use a cello, depending on the choice of keyboard. This brings us to another issue: which keyboard instrument Bach had in mind? The original manuscript in the archive of the Berlin Singakademie and Bach's own catalogue have clavier, which in the 18th century was mostly used for the clavichord. It could also refer to any strung keyboard instrument, and in this case the clavichord has to be excluded. The keyboard part has the indication clavicembalo. However, the keyboard part includes quite a number of dynamic indications which suggest the use of the fortepiano. And that could be the reason Bach added "and bass", probably meaning ad libitum. The fortepiano had established itself as a serious alternative to the harpsichord, but especially some older types were rather weak in the bass. In that case a cello could be useful to enforce the keyboard's bass part.

These issues are not discussed in the liner-notes of this recording by the ensemble Nevermind. It is notable that the performers opted for a harpsichord, and have added a string bass. The latter is not the cello, but rather the viola da gamba. That is not the most obvious option, given that at the time these pieces were written, the viola da gamba had largely disappeared from the scene. There is a good chance that there were still amateurs who owned and played a viola da gamba, but as these quartets are technically beyond the reach of amateurs, that can hardly be used as an argument. Not that it does matter much, as the string bass does not play a very prominent role. It is easier to justify the use of a harpsichord, which was still played at the time. Personally, I tend to prefer a fortepiano, for stylistic and historical reasons, but I certainly have enjoyed the way the keyboard part is played here.

Nevermind is a very fine ensemble of which I have heard excellent performances and recordings, and this disc is a very good one too. Its four members are all outstanding artists and well versed in the style of the time. The tempi are well chosen, and do justice to the contrasts Bach wanted to create. Some of the most striking examples are the last two movements of the third quartet, an adagio which is a brilliant example of Bach's expressive skills, and a presto that is bursting of energy. Both are given excellent performances. I have just one reservation: overall I find the dynamic contrasts not strong enough. Especially in some fast movements I would have preferred a wider dynamic range. And that is also one of the reasons why I prefer the fortepiano, as it has more dynamic possibilities.

The three quartets are not enough to fill a disc. Performers make different choices for the remaining items, and here Nevermind has come up with an original solution. Robin Pharo, the gambist of the ensemble, has transcribed two movements from keyboard works for the same scoring. Transcriptions were very common in the 18th century, and from that perspective, there can be no objection against what Pharo has done. The only thing that matters is whether it works, and it does. These transcriptions offer a different look at two very fine keyboard pieces and give a deeper insight into the world of CPE Bach.

Johan van Veen ( 2021)

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