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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): Orchestral and chamber music

[I] "Oboe Concertos"
Anna Starr, oboe; Joaquim Guerra Codina, bassoona
Musica Poetica
Dir: Jörn Boysen
rec: Sept & Oct 2011, Kethel, NH Kerk
Brilliant Classics - 94298 (© 2012) (53'28")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list
Score Sonata for oboe

Concerto for oboe, strings and bc in E flat (Wq 165 / H 468); Concerto for oboe, strings and bc in B flat (Wq 164 / H 466); Pastorale for oboe, bassoonb and bc in a minor (Wq deest / H deest) (attr); Sonata for oboe and bc in g minor (Wq 135 / H 549)

John Ma, Arwen Bouw, violin; Leticia Moros Ballesteros, viola; Maria Sánchez Ramirez, cello; Silvia Jiménez Soriano, double bass; Jörn Boysen, harpsichord

[II] "Six Sinfonias for String Orchestra, W. 182"
The Vivaldi Project
Dir: John Hsu
rec: Sept 19, 2010 (live), Washington, DC, National Presbyterian Church
Centaur - CRC 3176 (© 2011) (64'28")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Symphony in G (Wq 182,1 / H 657); Symphony in B flat (Wq 182,2 / H 658); Symphony in C (Wq 182,3 / H 659); Symphony in A (Wq 182,4 / H 660); Symphony in b minor (Wq 182,5 / H 661); Symphony in E (Wq 182,6 / H 662)

Elizabeth Field, Jennifer Roig-Francoli, Claire Jolivet, Gesa Kordes, June Huang, Allison Edberg, violin; Nina Falk, Leslie Nero, viola; Stephanie Vial, Alice Robbins, cello; Robbie Link, double bass; Joseph Gascho, harpsichord

From the mid-18th century until his death the name "Bach" was almost identical with one member of this musical dynasty: Carl Philipp Emanuel. He was especially known for his keyboard music which can be rightly called 'revolutionary', and which raised opposing reactions from music-loving authors. In an article in an English magazine, for instance, one author wrote critically about his "capricious manner, odd breaks, whimsical modulations and often very childish manner, mixed with an affectation of profound science". It was particularly the view on the role of emotion which was the revolutionary aspect of his oeuvre.

In his own treatise Versuch über die wahre Art, das Clavier zu spielen (1753) he had stated that "[a] musician cannot move others unless he too is moved. (...) Composers, therefore, act wisely who in notating their works include terms, in addition to tempo indications, which help to clarify the meaning of a piece". In another famous treatise, Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen (1752), Johann Joachim Quantz, flute teacher of King Frederick the Great of Prussia and Bach's colleague in the King's chapel, wrote that "[the] player should change in every bar to a different mood, and should be able to appear alternately sad, joyous, serious etc., such moods being also of great importance in music".

The first disc includes pieces from various stage in Carl Philipp Emanuel's career. The earliest work is probably the Sonata in g minor which may have been written before 1735. At that time he was still strongly under the influence of his father. Even so, it bears modern traits which one won't find in his father's music, as comes especially to the fore in the contrasting moods of the opening adagio. The sequence of the movements of this sonata - adagio, allegro, vivace - also points towards the future: this was the sort of texture which would become the standard around 1750.

This sonata is one of only three compositions for the oboe from Bach's pen, and the only piece which was originally written for this instrument. The two concertos are reworkings of concertos originally scored for keyboard. In his liner notes Jörn Boysen suggests that they could have been adapted for the oboe virtuoso Johann Christian Fischer. In the catalogue of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's works they are dated 1765. At that time Fischer was a member of Frederick's chapel. This could be relevant in regard to performance practice, especially the size of the ensemble. Musica Poetica play with one instrument per part; it is likely that at Frederick's court such solo concertos might have been performed with a larger group.

These two concertos are technically demanding. "Bach writes passage-work and ornamentation that is extremely difficult to execute on the oboes of his time", Boysen writes. This could be the effect of these concertos being originally scored for the keyboard. If Bach indeed reworked them for Fischer, he either didn't know that they were causing problems or he didn't bother because he knew that Fischer was a virtuoso who even might like the challenge. The slow movements are especially noteworthy from the angle of modern aesthetics as they express the emotions Bach and Quantz were referring to in their respective treatises. In the Concerto in B flat the oboe and the strings play with mutes in the second movement, 'largo e mesto'. This emphasizes the sad mood it aims to express.

The expressive character of these pieces is convincingly conveyed by Anna Starr and Musica Poetica. Ms Starr's performances are also technically impressive, especially considering the technically challenging nature of the concertos. The Pastorale in a minor is a spurious work. Boysen believes that - if it is written by a member of the Bach family - Wilhelm Friedemann is a more likely author than Carl Philipp Emanuel. It is not something one would recognize as 'pastoral', but it is a nice piece and rightly included in the programme. In short, this is a fine disc and thoroughly recommendable. Be careful, though: my copy had some serious defects in the last two tracks.

The six symphonies for strings belong to Bach's most revolutionary compositions. They date from 1773 when the Austrian Imperial Ambassador in Berlin, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, commissioned Bach to compose six symphonies for strings. He asked the composer to write them as he wished and not to care about any technical problems they may cause to performers. Therefore these symphonies can be considered the most accurate expressions of Bach's aesthetic ideals.

"Most notably in the first movements, Bach freely inserted orchestral outbursts, both extended and short, amidst lyrical and expressive thematic material, to enhance the emotional intensity of the music. (...) They include figurations based on rapid scales, arpeggios, multiple stops, and other technical challenges, especially those that are in the upper pitch range of the violin", John Hsu writes in the liner-notes of his recording. Van Swieten took these pieces with him when he returned to Vienna, and Haydn and Mozart may have heard them when they were performed during his chamber concerts which they attended. There is no doubt that both were strongly influenced by the Hamburg Bach.

These symphonies are regularly played and have been recorded several times. Among the recordings which I know are those by Christopher Hogwood and Trevor Pinnock, both dating from the late 1970s. In my view the latter is the best, and has not been surpassed. This new recording certainly doesn't do that. Even if we take into account that this is a live recording which was not edited afterwards, these performances are disappointing. The character of the symphonies comes off well, but the ensemble is often inadequate, and the intonation suspect. The sound of the strings is not very pleasant, and the acoustic is rather inappropriate for this kind of music. As a concert these performances may be alright, but they are not good enough for repeated listening.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Musica Poetica
The Vivaldi Project

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