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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): "Sonaten für Kenner und Liebhaber"

Pieter-Jan Belder, clavichorda, fortepianob

rec: 2012 & 2013, Velp (Neth), Klooster Emmaüs
Brilliant Classics - 94486 (5 CDs) (© 2013) (4.49'15")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

[Sechs Clavier-Sonaten für Kenner und Liebhaber, Erste Sammlung, 1779 (Wq 55)]
Sonata in C (Wq 55,1 / H 244)b; Sonata in F (Wq 55,2 / H 130)a; Sonata in b minor (Wq 55,3 / H 245)b; Sonata in A (Wq 55,4 / H 186)b; Sonata in F (Wq 55,5 / H 243)a; Sonata in G (Wq 55,6 / H 187)a
[Clavier-Sonaten nebst einigen Rondos fürs Forte-Piano für Kenner und Liebhaber, Zweite Sammlung, 1780 (Wq 56)]
Rondo in C (Wq 56,1 / H 260)a; Sonata in G (Wq 56,2 / H 246)a; Rondo in D (Wq 56,3 / H 261)a; Sonata in F (Wq 56,4 / H 269)b; Rondo in A (Wq 56,5 / H 262)b; Sonata in A (Wq 56,6 / H 270)a
[Clavier-Sonaten nebst einigen Rondos fürs Forte-Piano für Kenner und Liebhaber, Dritte Sammlung, 1781 (Wq 57)]
Rondo in E (Wq 57,1 / H 265)b; Sonata in a minor (Wq 57,2 / H 247)b; Rondo in G (Wq 57,3 / H 271)b; Sonata in d minor (Wq 57,4 / H 208)b; Rondo in F (Wq 57,5 / H 266)b; Sonata in f minor (Wq 57,6 / H 173)b
[Clavier-Sonaten und freye Fantasien nebst einigen Rondos fürs Forte-Piano für Kenner und Liebhaber, Vierte Sammlung, 1783 (Wq 58)]
Rondo in A (Wq 58,1 / H 276)b; Sonata in G (Wq 58,2 / H 273)a; Rondo in E (Wq 58,3 / H 274)a; Sonata in e minor (Wq 58,4 / H 188)a; Rondo in B flat (Wq 58,5 / H 267)b; Fantasia in E flat (Wq 58,6 / H 277)b; Fantasia in A (Wq 58,7 / H 278)a
[Clavier-Sonaten und freye Fantasien nebst einigen Rondos fürs Forte-Piano für Kenner und Liebhaber, Fünfte Sammlung, 1785 (Wq 59)]
Sonata in e minor (Wq 59,1 / H 281)a; Rondo in G (Wq 59,2 / H 268)b; Sonata in B flat (Wq 59,3 / H 282)b; Rondo in c minor (Wq 59,4 / H 283)b; Fantasia in F (Wq 59,5 / H 279)a; Fantasia in C (Wq 59,6 / H 284)b
[Clavier-Sonaten und freye Fantasien nebst einigen Rondos fürs Forte-Piano für Kenner und Liebhaber, Sechste Sammlung, 1787 (Wq 61)]
Rondo in E flat (Wq 61,1 / H 288)b; Sonata in D (Wq 61,2 / H 286)a; Fantasia in B flat (Wq 61,3 / H 289)a; Rondo in d minor (Wq 61,4 / H 290)b; Sonata in e minor (Wq 61,5 / H 287)a; Fantasia in C (Wq 61,6 / H 291)b

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is a quite fasionable composer these days. The commemoration of his birth in 2014 certainly has stimulated the interest in his oeuvre. This set of discs attests to that. It is just one of various releases by Brilliant Classics which are devoted to parts of his output. There was a time that little notice was taken of this second son of the Thomaskantor. In the liner-notes to a recording of keyboard works which was released in 1991 the author stated that "ever since C.P.E. Bach has continued being a stranger to us". He just had referred to the judgment of Robert Schumann who wrote that Emanuel "as a creative musician ... didn't even approximately come up to his father's level". Those words were written under the impression of the then recent rediscovery of Johann Sebastian's St Matthew Passion.

How different was the assessment of the man and his work in the classical period. Joseph Haydn was strongly influenced by him: "Whoever knows me well will see that I owe Emanuel Bach a great deal, that I have understood him and studied him diligently". Equally impressed was Beethoven: "I've got only a few of Emanuel Bach's piano works, yet they cannot but serve the true artist not only as a real treat but also for study".

Emanuel composed in almost any genre of his time, except opera, but it was in the department of keyboard music that he became especially famous. He was one of the most prolific composers of keyboard music of his time. The largest part consists of the around 150 sonatas, but to those one can add suites, character pieces, dances, variations, rondos and fantasias. The latter two are included in the six collections which Pieter-Jan Belder recorded for Brilliant Classics.

It is possible that it was not Bach's intention to publish a whole series of keyboard works. That could well have been due to his relative restraint in this part of his oeuvre. In his autobiography of 1773 he wrote: "Since I have had to compose most of my works for specific individuals and for the public, I have always been more restricted in them than in the few pieces that I have written merely for myself". He had the first collection engraved on his own costs, and therefore this undertaking was financially risky. But the first six sonatas (Wq 55) sold very well, "like hot cakes", as he himself said, and that will have encouraged him to publish further volumes. However, with every new volume the number of subscribers diminished. From the onset Bach had two groups of purchasers in mind: professional keyboard players (Kenner) and amateurs (Liebhaber). This would increase sale and explains the different technical demands in every collection. In the first the Sonata in C is rather easy, and clearly intended for amateurs, as a reviewer in 1779 observed. We find several of such sonatas in the next volumes, such as the Sonata in G from the 4th volume and the Sonata in D from the 6th.

The rondos are also aimed at amateurs. In a letter to a friend Bach wrote: "The partiality for rondos here is quite as notable as in London, therefore I've followed it myself in order to increase my sale. I know from experience that there are many who buy my collections only for the rondos". The fantasias are at the other end of the scale: here we find Bach at his most individual. These have their origins in his improvisations. That comes especially to the fore in the fact that some of these fantasias are largely without bars. In the fast sections they very much look like French préludes non mesurés. That doesn't mean that the sonatas and rondos are conventional. The rondo has a clear structure due to the return of the thematic material which opens the piece, but often the subject appears at a different pitch or with a different rhythm. One of the features of Bach's style is the sequence of contrasting ideas which often follow each other without any pause or transitional passage.

The pieces in these collections include many sudden pauses and frequent dynamic contrasts. Sometimes we find the whole array of dynamic indications - from pianissimo to fortissimo - within a couple of bars. There are passages in which some notes have to be played staccato, elsewhere we find the indication tenuto, meaning that the notes have to be given their full length.

The realization of these dynamic indications is not easy to realise on the harpsichord; they can only be suggested with agogical means. At the time the first volume was published the fortepiano was becoming increasingly important, but probably only among professional players. It can hardly be a coincident that in the first volume there are far fewer dynamic markings than in the later volumes. In the opening sonata of that first set, the Sonata in C already mentioned before, there are hardly any. This certainly is an indication that Bach realized that many keyboard players still played the harpsichord. However, it seems that he had especially the clavichord in mind, considering the titles of Clavier-Sonaten. The word clavier could be used for any keyboard instrument, but especially referred to the clavichord. This was the most disseminated keyboard instrument among amateurs as it was relatively cheap. It is also the instrument Bach loved the most as its dynamic range and the ability to add a slight vibrato (Bebung) suited Bach's highly emotional style. In later volumes the fortepiano is explicitly mentioned, so that is a legitimate option to perform these works.

In many recordings the choice of fortepiano is a bit problematic. Often (copies of) instruments are used which are too late for Bach's music. That is the case here as well. Although the date of the original instrument is not specified, the mention of the name of Walter does suggest that it dates from the late 1780s or the 1790s. A Silbermann would have been a better option. Its sound is closer to the harpsichord than Walter instruments. The clavichord is a much more appropriate instrument: it is a copy after Friederici which refers to Christian Ernst Friederici (or Friderici) whose clavichords were much admired by Emanuel Bach.

My critical remarks about the choice of fortepiano doesn't diminish my admiration for Belder's performance in any way. He delivers outstanding interpretations which do full justice to the features of Bach's oeuvre. He explores the dynamic possibilities of the instruments and shows great sensitivity to the specific characteristics of the clavichord. The surprising elements in Bach's scores are perfectly conveyed, such as sudden pauses and abrupt dynamic contrasts. He makes an intelligent use of rubato which suited Bach's ideal of moving the listeners. There is always a danger that its application is overdone, but that is not the case here.

Bach's contemporary Johann Philipp Kirnberger stated that his sonatas are "so telling that one supposes to be listening not to sounds but to an intelligible language". These performances attest to that.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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Pieter-Jan Belder

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