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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): Music for keyboard and violin

[I] "Works for keyboard & violin"
Jörg Halubek, harpsichordadf, tangent pianobc; Leila Schayegh, violinabcdf
rec: Sept 23 - 25, 2013, Stuttgart, SWR (Kammermusikstudio)
Pan Classics - PC 10305 (© 2014) (71'25")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

[II] "Works for Violin and Pianoforte"
Piet Kuijken, fortepianoacef; Albrecht Breuninger, violinacef
rec: Jan 9 - 11, 2006, Stuttgart, SWR (Kammermusiksaal)
Hänssler Classic - CD 93.312 (© 2014) (67'20")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list


Arioso in A (Wq 79 / H 535)a; Fantasia in f sharp minor 'C.P.E. Bachs Empfindungen' (Wq 80 / H 536)b; Sonata in c minor (Wq 78 / H 514)c; Sonata in D (Wq 71 / H 502)d; Sonata in B flat (Wq 77 / H 513)e; Sonata in b minor (Wq 76 / H 512)f

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was born in 1714. This means that 2014 is a commemoration year. It is to be expected that a number of recordings of his music will be released. In 1988, when his death was commemorated, he was still a largely unknown quantity, and the many recordings which were produced at the time have greatly improved his reputation. Today his music is far more often performed and he is well represented in the catalogue. The Swedish label BIS realized two of the most important recording projects around Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: the complete keyboard concertos and his oeuvre for keyboard solo. This year it is Brilliant Classics which releases a remarkable number of discs devoted to his oeuvre.

The chamber music is still a lesser-known part of his output. The best-known pieces are the three quartets for keyboard, flute, viola and bass and some of the flute sonatas. The works for keyboard and violin are not that often performed. However, these are substantial pieces and the later works in this genre reflect some of the features of Bach's style.

The first attempts in this department date from the 1730s when Emanuel was still a pupil of his father. Some of his chamber music compositions from this period are attributed to the latter. This indicates that stylistically he didn't move far away from Johann Sebastian's style. The Sonata in D (Wq 71 / H 502) is an example. It is part of a number of solo and trio sonatas which Bach revised about 15 years later. This sonata is in four movements, and is strongly reminiscent of Sebastian's sonatas for keyboard and violin. The pair of menuets which brings the sonata to a close reflect the galant idiom which Sebastian also used in his later chamber music.

At the time Emanuel revised his early sonatas he worked at the court of Frederick the Great. His new compositions were such that his employer didn't enjoy them very much, as he was especially fond of the galant idiom of which his flute teacher, Johann Joachim Quantz, was an exponent. It seems likely that the earlier sonatas, as the one just mentioned, were more appreciated by Frederick than those in Emanuel's 'new' style. However, we should probably not exaggerate Frederick's conservatism. Recent explorations of Quantz's oeuvre show that one doesn't do him justice if one considers his music as nothing more than galant. It seems that the antagonism between Emanuel and Frederick was largely personal. They just didn't like each other very much. Emanuel was probably also too self-confident for Frederick's liking - clearly a legacy from his father.

Most of Bach's new chamber music compositions date from these years. They were not written for performance at Frederick's court, but rather at the homes of wealthy citizens in Berlin. Here Bach moved in circles of the bourgeoisie and representatives of the Enlightenment: artists, musicians and poets. He became acquainted with some of the most renowned writers of his time, many of whose poems he set to music. A large part of his songs for voice and keyboard date also from this time. The sonatas show an increase in emotion and drama. This was probably partly inspired by the Italian works for the stage he heard at the Berlin opera which was founded in 1741.

The three sonatas Wq 76-78 (H 512-514) date from 1763 while the Arioso in A was written in 1781 when Bach was director musices in Hamburg. The latter is a piece for keyboard with violin accompaniment. The keyboard dominates and the violin plays a largely subservient role. It mainly emphasizes some motives and this way points out the contrasts within this piece. The violin has a more independent part in the three sonatas, although here the keyboard has the lead as well. However, in various movements the two instruments play thematic material of their own. One sometimes get the impression of the two instruments playing apart. We also find features that we encounter in his keyboard works and some of the symphonies: sudden changes in tempo and dynamics and unexpected pauses. Even so, now and then we encounter elements which seem to refer to the past, for instance polyphony as in the Sonata in c minor or the ritornello form of the Italian solo concerto in the opening movement of the Sonata in b minor.

The most remarkable piece - and the latest in the programme, dating from the late 1780s, not long before the composer's death - is the Fantasia in f sharp minor. It was originally conceived for keyboard solo and could well be based on an improvisation - an art Bach was famous for. It also explains that is has a strongly personal character: it was not aimed at the market of Kenner und Liebhaber as his chamber music. The title, C.P.E. Bachs Empfindungen, is telling, and so are the rather unusual key of f sharp minor, which Johann Mattheson characterised as "misanthropic", and the tempo indication: "sehr traurig und ganz langsam" (very sorrowful and very slow). Later Bach added a violin part which underlines and adds colour to some passages and increases the dynamic contrasts.

The programme of these two discs is largely the same and this allows a direct comparison. The choice of keyboard is always a problematic issue in repertoire from the second half of the 18th century. Several keyboard instruments coexisted: the harpsichord, the clavichord, the tangent piano and the fortepiano. Among amateurs the latter was rather rare, and even professional performers and composers didn't immediately embrace it as they felt it had too many shortcomings. Haydn is a telling example: it was only somewhere during the 1780s that he turned towards the new instrument and gradually started to prefer it to the harpsichord. The clavichord seems to have been Emanuel's favourite instrument. It was on this instrument that he played when he was visited by Charles Burney. However, for chamber music it is less suited, and that saddles the choice of the most appropriate instrument on the interpreter. Halubek and Kuijken have made different choices. The former plays a harpsichord (copy after Mietke; the year of the original is not mentioned) and a tangent piano (a copy after Späth & Schmahl, c1780), whereas Piet Kuijken chose a fortepiano which is not specified in the booklet, but seems to be a rather late instrument (a copy after Anton Walter?). The latter is rather unsatisfying, because it is aesthetically too different from the repertoire, and especially too strong and loud for the sonatas. In the latter Halubek plays both instruments, the harpsichord in the Sonata in b minor and the tangent piano in the Sonata in c minor. This underlines the coexistence of these two instruments. One could argue that a tangent piano of around 1780 is too 'modern' for sonatas written about 20 years earlier, but I am not sure whether this instrument changed very much over the years. The fortepiano surely did, and therefore an earlier type - for instance a Silbermann - would have been a much better choice, if Kuijken wanted to use a fortepiano by any means.

The interpretations are different as well. On this site I usually only review performances on period instruments, but in this case I decided to include the recording by Kuijken and Breuninger (which I first reviewed for MusicWeb International) because the use of a fortepiano could suggest that the violin is also a period instrument. However, Albrecht Breuninger plays a modern - or probably 'modernized' - instrument. It is not specified, but as far as I am aware Breuninger has no credentials at all in the realm of period instrument performances. Also the sound of the violin clearly suggests that this is no period instrument. In order not to dominate too much Breuninger has to reduce the volume of his playing. This has the same effect as a pianist trying to make his instrument sound like a harpsichord: it detracts from some of the former's features. The expressive qualities of the violin are not explored. Dynamically Breuninger's playing is too flat. When he plays forte, once in a while, the violin overshadows the fortepiano. As a whole these performances are not very expressive. Sometimes I found them dull, especially in the Sonata in c minor. Moreover, Piet Kuijken's playing is not that energetic and he doesn't fully explore the expressive qualities of the keyboard parts.

The performances by Jörg Halubek and Leila Schayegh are more satisfying. The use of a period instrument allows the latter to fully explore its dynamical possibilities in the Arioso and the Fantasia without overshadowing the keyboard. In the sonatas I am less happy with the balance as here the violin has probably a little too much presence. That could also be the result of Halubek's playing which is nice and stylish but sometimes too restrained. These performances could have been more extraverted, for instance in the allegretto siciliano from the Sonata in b minor. In this movement Kuijken and Breuninger need 6'50", Halubek and Schayegh just 3'55". As I could not state any clear difference in tempo this is probably the result of the former observing all the repeats. That speaks in its favour, but can't save the Hänssler production; without a period violin this repertoire can't be done real justice. The Pan Classics recording has to be preserved, although it doesn't fulfill all the expectations.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Albrecht Breuninger
Jörg Halubek
Piet Kuijken
Leila Schayegh

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