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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): Sonatas for keyboard

[I] "Prussian Sonatas"
Susan Alexander-Max, fortepiano
rec: Oct 24 - 25, 2010, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Naxos - 8.572674 ( 2012) (78'39")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Sonata in F (Wq 48,1 / H 24); Sonata in B flat (Wq 48,2 / H 25); Sonata in E (Wq 48,3 / H 26); Sonata in c minor (Wq 48,4 / H 27); Sonata in C (Wq 48,5 / H 28); Sonata in A (Wq 48,6 / H 29)

Source: Sei sonate per cembalo, 1742

[II] "Klaviersonaten"
Davide Pozzi, harpsichorda, fortepianob
rec: Sept 5 - 6, 2011, Eupilio (LC), Chiesa di S. Lorenzo
Stradivarius - Str 33911 ( 2012) (79'20")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover & track-list

Sonata in C (Wq 62,10 / H 59)b; Sonata in c minor (Wq 65,31 / H 121)b; Sonata in E flat (Wq 65,28 / H 78)a; Sonata in G (Wq 62,19 / H 119)b; Sonata in g minor (Wq 65,17 / H 47)a; Sonata in b minor (Wq 62,22 / H 132)a; Sonata in B flat (Wq 62,16 / H 116)a

From the mid-18th century until his death Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was the most famous keyboard player in Germany. Many of his compositions were printed and others found a wide dissemination in manuscript. With his keyboard music he greatly influenced the classical masters Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. It was during his years in Hamburg that he created his most personal pieces which he liked to play on his beloved clavichord. Here he was once visited by the English journalist Charles Burney who gave a vivid description of Bach's way of playing and his emotional involvement.

The music on the discs to be reviewed here is from a much earlier date, and was written in the 1740s and 1750s. At that time Bach was at the service of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. He was an avid music lover and fanatical player of the flute, but his taste was rather conservative. It didn't prevent Bach from starting to experiment with new forms and embracing new aesthetic ideals in which the personal involvement of the performer was an essential element. It is unlikely that Bach will have played his keyboard music at the court as he mostly accompanied the King when he was playing flute sonatas and concertos. Even so, Bach dedicated his six sonatas which are known as Prussian Sonatas to Frederick.

They are not comparable to his latest keyboard works but show his individual approach and his sense of experiment just the same. Although written in the traditional three-movement form modelled after the Vivaldian solo concerto, the ritornello technique is omitted. Instead the sonatas foreshadow the sonata form which emerged in the last quarter of the century. One of the features of Bach's keyboard music is its capricious character, expressing itself in strong contrasts within single movements, dynamic shading, sudden pauses and thematic and rhythmic irregularity. Many of his keyboard works have strong improvisational traits. The emotional character of the keyboard works by Bach - and those by his contemporaties - marks the departure from the baroque ideal of a unity of Affekt.

The experiments at the keyboard are reflected by the Prussian Sonatas which show a large amount of variety. Although they are an expression of the new aesthetics which is connected with terms like Empfindsamkeit and Sturm und Drang, they include elements from the past as well. Add to that the fact that characteristics of the galant idiom are also included and one understands that these sonatas are highly interesting from a historical point of view. What is more important, these are compelling pieces, and it isn't without a reason that they have been recorded various times and belong to the better-known part of Bach's oeuvre.

Unfortunately the many qualities of these sonatas are not convincingly conveyed in the performances by Susan Alexander-Max. The first and main reason is the choice of instrument. These sonatas were written between 1740 and 1742 and at that time the harpsichord was still the dominant instrument. The fortepiano was already played at the time, but the instruments were very different from the fortepiano Ms Alexander-Max plays here. It dates from around 1790 and was built by Ferdinand Hofmann in Vienna. This seems not to be the most suitable instrument for this repertoire. The chords don't come off that well nor do the trills which are rather unnatural in this performance. One also has the feeling that Ms Alexander-Max doesn't exploit the full dynamic possibilities of the fortepiano. When she plays real fortes these seem to be exaggerated and at odds with the character of the music. I had the same feeling here as with recordings of Mozart's sonatas at a modern concert grand. There is certainly a kind of inner conflict regarding dynamics in these sonatas. Bach creates dynamic contrasts but seems to have the use of contrasting manuals of the harpsichord in mind. I compared some movements with the interpretation by Bob van Asperen (Teldec, 1978; reissued 2008) and the latter is more convincing both because of the instrument and the style of playing. It is a mystery to me why performers are often so careless when it comes down to the choice of instrument.

The second disc includes seven sonatas, five of which were printed in the 1750s. Here we find the same characteristics and sense of experiment as in the Prussian Sonatas. They show a great variety of forms and moods. The Sonata in g minor, for instance, has many similarities with the Chromatic fantasia by Johann Sebastian. In his liner-notes Davide Pozzi rightly refers to the 'orchestral' traits of the Sonata in B flat and the Sonata in b minor. The strongest emotions are expressed in the Sonata in c minor. The titles of the movements are telling: allegro assai ma pomposo, andantino pathetico, allegro scherzando. The latter represents a kind of relaxation but ends in a quite dramatic way, with some sudden pauses in the concluding bars. They also appear in the opening movement of the Sonata in G, whereas the second movement includes frequent staccato indications.

Davide Pozzi plays two instruments. The harpsichord is a copy of an instrument by Christian Vater of 1738 in the German National Museum in Nuremberg. The fortepiano is a copy of an instrument of Jean-Louis Dulcken (called Ludwig Dulken in the booklet), which was built between 1785 and 1790 (according to the museum's website; the booklet mentions c1795). The harpsichord proves to be the most convincing choice, and fits the music perfectly. The fortepiano is less appropriate, although the sound suggests the instrument is older than the dates indicate. It has a brighter and more 'pointed' sound than the instrument Susan Alexander-Max uses, and because of that - but probably also due to Davide Pozzi's playing - the trills come off much better here than in the previous recording. Pozzi has captured the character of Bach's keyboard idiom very well, and that makes this disc quite compelling, despite the debatable choice of the fortepiano.

Johan van Veen ( 2013)

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