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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): "The Solo Keyboard Music 10 - Sonatas and Suite (1749-1752)"

Miklós Spányi, clavichord

rec: July 2000, Lumijoki (FI), Lumijoen Nuorisoseuratalo
BIS - CD-1189 (© 2003) (70'10")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata in D (Wq 62,13 / H 67) [3]; Sonata in F (Wq 62,9 / H 58) [1]; Sonata in G (Wq 65,26 / H 64); Sonata in g minor (Wq 65,27 / H 68); Suite in e minor (Wq 62,12 / H 66) [2]

Sources: [1] Johann Ulrich Haffner, ed., Oeuvres mélées contenant VI sonates pour le clavessin d'autant de plus célèbres compositeurs, Partie I, [1755]; [2] Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg, ed., Raccolta delle più nuove composizioni di clavicembalo di differenti maestri ed autori, 1756; [3] F.W. Birnstiel, ed., Musikalisches Allerley von verschiedenen Tonkünstlern, 1761

The clavichord has its origins in the 15th century and was built well into the 19th century. Whereas in the renaissance and the baroque the clavichord was just one of the possibilities to play keyboard music, and was often used to practice keyboard playing, in the middle of the 18th century composers specifically wrote music with this instrument in mind. One of them was Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

"After dinner (...) I prevailed upon him to sit down again to a clavichord, and he played with little intermission, till nearly eleven o'clock at night. During this time, he grew so animated and possessed, that he looked like one inspired. His eyes were fixed, his under lip fell, and drops of effervescence distilled from his countenance". With these words Charles Burney described a meeting with Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach around 1770, who was at that time considered the greatest keyboard player in Germany. This description reflects the change in attitude towards performing music. In the centuries before performers were urged by the writers of treatises never to show their inner feelings, and always keep a straight face. But in the period music history has labelled the Empfindsamkeit performers were urged to do the opposite: the sentiments in the music should be expressed on the face of the performer. On other instances Carl Philipp Emanuel was seen shedding tears while playing. An indication of the more personal style of composing was his piece for keyboard Carl Philipp Emanuel Bachs Empfindungen ('CPhE Bach's emotions'). A piece with such a title was unthinkable before.

More than any other instrument the clavichord was able to comply with the requirements of this new approach. Unlike the harpsichord the clavichord allows the player to have a very direct and close contact with the strings and to influence its sound. It was even possible to create a vibrato by pressing the key after striking it; this effect was called Bebung. This circumstance made the clavichord pre-eminently suitable to express feelings.

Carl Philipp Emanuel composed a large number of pieces for the keyboard. Like most composers of his time he had two different kinds of target groups: on the one hand the Kenner, the professional keyboard players, on the other hand the Liebhaber, the amateurs. It would be a mistake to compare these 'amateurs' with the kind of players which are today referred to by this word. Telemann - Carl Philipp Emanuel's godfather - was someone who composed a huge number of works for amateurs, and from the technical demands of these works one has to conclude that the performing skills of the amateurs of those days were considerable.

In his series of recordings of the complete works for keyboard solo by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach Miklos Spányi has devoted the tenth volume to works written for amateurs. They are technically easier, but also stylistically less personal. Here we don't find many of the characteristics of Bach's more personal compositions, like the keyboard fantasias or the symphonies. Darrell M. Berg, in his liner-notes, writes: "All these sonatas belong to the style known now and in Bach's time as 'galant': they are light and pleasant in character, and consist mostly of simple homophonic textures (...)."

One cannot exclude that some amateurs may have played pieces like those included here on the 'old' harpsichord. In particular the work in the middle of this disc, the Suite in e minor, sounds like a typical harpsichord piece. It is a work which is written in imitation of the style brisé of the French clavecinistes. In this suite - which was an old-fashioned form in the time it was written (the 1750's) - Johann Sebastian is never far away. But, since the clavichord was always considered an alternative to the harpsichord, there is nothing against playing these works on this instrument.

And Miklos Spányi is playing quite beautifully. He uses every opportunity to create as much tension as possible. One of the tools he uses is the rubato, for example in the very first track of this disc. He also generously adds ornamentation in the repeats. The fact that the compositions recorded here are less 'personal' than some other works by Bach can also be gathered from the tempo indications: there are no adagios here, most middle movements have the indication andante. The larghetto from the Sonata in g minor (Wq 65,27) is the only real slow movement here, together with the sarabande from the Suite. In this respect the choice of tempo in the performance isn’t always satisfying. In particular the andante movements from the first two sonatas on this disc (H 58 and 64) are a little too slow.

In general Spányi's playing is very good. He uses a clavichord, built by the Belgian Joris Potvlieghe. One of the striking aspects of it is its powerful sound. He copied an instrument by Gottfried Joseph Horn, which is now in the Museum of Musical Instruments in Leipzig. In the booklet Spányi makes special reference to the "extremely long after-reverberation of the strings (produced by the undamped part of the strings between bridge and tuning pin), which beautifully fills the pauses when necessary and gives resonance to the typically thin texture." It is unclear from the text to what extent this is also the characteristic of the original instrument or whether this is actually an 'improvement' by the builder. The fact that some keyboard makers present their instruments as 'copies' of original instruments whereas in fact they are built 'after models' from a certain period makes me a little suspicious in cases where the instrument does sound different from almost any specimen I have heard before. I have to leave the question whether this sound is really 'historically founded' unanswered for the time being.

This disc presents a lesser-known aspect of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and is therefore an interesting and well-performed contribution to our knowledge of this master of the Empfindsamkeit.

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

Relevant links:

Miklós Spányi

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