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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): Organ Works

[I] "Complete Organ Music"
Luca Scandali, organ
rec: Nov 25 - 27, 2013, Vigliano Biellese, Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta
Brilliant Classics - 94812 (2 CDs) (© 2014) (2.06'12")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

[II] "6 organ sonatas"
Ton Koopman, organ
rec: April & Oct 2013, Berlin-Karlshorst, Kirche zur frohen Botschaft
Challenge Classics - 72260 (© 2014) (77'34")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Adagio in d minor (Wq 66 n.v. / H 352) (I); Aus der Tiefe rufe ich (BWV 745) (I); Choräle mit ausgesetzten Mittelstimmen (O Gott, du frommer Gott (H 336,1); Ich bin ja, Herr, in deiner Macht (H 336,2); Jesus, meine Zuversicht (H 336,3); Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten (H 336,4); Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott (H 336,5)) (I); Fantasia and fugue in c minor (Wq 119,7 / H 75,5) (I); Fugue in d minor (Wq 119,2 / H 99) (I); Fugue in F (Wq 119,3 / H 100) (I); Fugue in g minor (Wq 119,5 / H 101,5) (I); Fugue in A (Wq 119,4 / H 101) (I); Fugue in E flat (Wq 119,6 / H 102) (I); Fugue in d minor (H 372) (I); Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV Anh 73) (I); Prelude in D (Wq 70,7 / H 107) (I); Sonata in d minor (Wq 69 / H 53) (II); Sonata in B flat (Wq 70,2 / H 134); Sonata in F (Wq 70,3 / H 84); Sonata in a minor (Wq 70,4 / H 85); Sonata in D (Wq 70,5 / H 86); Sonata in g minor (Wq 70,6 / H 87)


All the sons of Johann Sebastian Bach were skilled keyboard players. At that time this meant that they were also able to play the organ. However, only Wilhelm Friedemann made a name for himself as a virtuosic organist. Johann Christian was organist in Milan for some time; Johann Christoph Friedrich once applied for a position as organist, but never took it up. Carl Philipp Emanuel never had an organist post. At the court of Frederick the Great it was his duty to accompany his employer at the harpsichord. As director musices in Hamburg from 1768 until his death it was his responsibility to compose for the liturgy in the five main churches, but not to play the organ. As a result his output in the genre of music for the organ is rather small.

The title of the Brilliant Classics disc is "Complete Organ Music". In the case of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach it is not that easy to decide what exactly can be considered organ music. The main part of his organ oeuvre comprises the sonatas he composed when he worked at Frederick's court in Berlin. They were written for Princess Amalia of Prussia, Frederick's sister. The fact that she was unable to play the pedals explains why these sonatas are for manuals only. This allows performances on other keyboard instruments, such as the harpsichord or the clavichord. In this regard it is interesting that - as Ton Koopman writes in his liner-notes - the compass of the organ of Princess Amalia was unusual for that time as its highest note is f3 (instead of d3 or c3). That was also the compass of stringed keyboard instruments.

As it is mostly impossible to make a clear distinction between organ music and music for a stringed keyboard 'complete recordings' are bound to be different in what is included and what is omitted. The set of 'organ sonatas' is a good example. When the organist Johann Carl Friedrich Rellstab (1759-1813) published CPE Bach's sonatas in 1791 he omitted the first, probably because he considered it more idiomatic for the harpsichord. Luca Scandali and Ton Koopman both follow in his footsteps and have not included it. That is a little disappointing, also because players of the harpsichord or other stringed keyboard instruments may omit it as they consider it an organ sonata. On the other hand, Rellstab included the Sonata in c minor (Wq 69 / H 53) which has the addition a due tastature. Koopman included it in his recording, unlike Scandali.

The latter also recorded five fugues which are catalogued as works for keyboard - i.e. stringed keyboard instruments - in the catalogues of CPE Bach's compositions but he doesn't give any reasons why he thinks that they should be ranked among the organ works nor does he explain why he recorded the numbers 2 to 6 and omitted the first. They date from 1755, about the same time the organ sonatas were composed. At the time the fugue had become more or less old-fashioned, and they are more about expression than about a technically 'correct' use of the form.

The sonatas are not fundamentally different from Bach's sonatas for stringed keyboard instruments, although they probably have more prominent galant features than most of those. The changes in mood which are partly exposed through contrasts in dynamics, are realised here through alternation between the two manuals. Scandali makes the most of the opportunities his instrument has to offer and the contrasts within the fast movements come off very well. The slow movements include far fewer dynamic contrasts; here it is expression which takes centre stage. Scandali has chosen the appropriate stops to make this audible. That is also the case in most of the fast movements. Only in the fast movements of the Sonata in D do I find the registration a little too aggressive.

That brings us to the issue of the choice of instrument. Koopman is the most 'authentic' in that he not only plays a historical organ but even the organ which was once built for Anna Amalia. It is notable that, although she was unable to play the pedals, this instrument has two manuals and a pedalboard. Apparently she attempted to master playing the pedals - largely because she wanted to play the organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach - but that seems to have been to no avail. This organ has a more intimate sound than the instrument Scandali plays and that speaks in favour of Koopman. Its pitch is a'=430 Hz, the tuning Bach-Kellner. Scandali plays an Italian organ built in 2007 by Dell'Orto & Lanzini; the pitch is a'=440 Hz, the tuning a modified Kirnberger temperament.

As far as the performances are concerned: I enjoyed both Koopman and Scandali. They have in common that they play with much energy and passion and add quite a lot of ornamentation - more than I have heard in previous recordings. However, a not unimportant difference is the treatment of repeats. In most movements Koopman takes less time, not because he plays faster but because he doesn't observe all the repeats. That is probably inspired by the wish - or compelled by the need - to confine himself to one disc. I find that regrettable but I realise that interpreters have different approaches to the issue of repeats.

The nice thing about Scandali's recording is the inclusion of other, lesser-known pieces. Some of these are considered of doubtful authenticity; he should have mentioned that in his liner-notes, or argue why he thinks that they are from Emanuel's pen. In the cases of the pieces based on chorales it is hard to see what could have been Bach's reasons to write them. The harmonic language is typical for the generation of the Bach sons, and the chorale melodies are different - both melodically and rhythmically - from what we know from the previous era. This repertoire is given good performances. The Dell'Orto & Lanzini organ includes a Zymbelstern which Scandali uses at the close of the Prelude in D. I wonder whether this is a bit anachronistic; it was often used in the 17th century - mostly in chorale-based music - but was probably out of fashion in Emanuel's time.

The organ works by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach are not as well known as they deserve to be. For that reason both releases are very welcome, and the convincing interpretations of both artists make them even more attractive propositions.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Ton Koopman

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