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CD reviews






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

[I] "Rondos & Fantasias"
Christine Schornsheim, tangent piano
rec: March 4 - 8, 2013, Schloss Bad Krozingen
Capriccio - C5201 (© 2014) (73'23")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Fantasia in C (Wq 59,6 / W 284) [5]; Fantasia in C (Wq 61,6 / W 291) [6]; Fantasia in E flat (Wq 58,6 / W 277) [4]; Fantasia in F (Wq 59,5 / W 279) [5]; Rondo in C (Wq 56,1 / W 260) [2] ; Rondo in c minor (Wq 59,4 / W 283) [5]; Rondo in d minor (Wq 61,4 / W 290) [6]; Rondo in E (Wq 57,1 / W 265) [3]; Rondo in E (Wq 58,3 / W 274) [4]; Rondo in F (Wq 57,5 / W 266) [3]; Rondo in G (Wq 57,3 / W 271) [3]; Rondo in A (Wq 56,5 / W 262) [2] ; Rondo in B flat (Wq 58,5 / W 267) [4]

[II] "Fantasia"
Tini Mathot, fortepiano
rec: Jan 2014, Westzaan, Zuidervermaning
Challenge Classics - CC72262 (© 2014) (74'22")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Fantasia in C (Wq 59,6 / W 284) [5]; Fantasia in f sharp minor (Wq 67 / H 300); Fantasia in B flat (Wq 61,3 / W 289) [6]; Rondo in D (Wq 56,3 / W 261) [2] ; Rondo in E (Wq 57,1 / W 265) [3]; Rondo in G (Wq 57,3 / W 271) [3]; Sonata in f minor (Wq 57,6 / W 173) [3]; 12 Variations on Folie d'Espagne (Wq 118,9 / H 263)

[III] "Sense and sensibility - Sonatas, Fantasias & Rondo"
Riccardo Cecchetti, fortepiano
rec: May 12 - 14, 2014, Abtei Marienmünster (Konzerthaus)
Challenge Classics - CC72666 (© 2015) (67'51")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Fantasia in C (Wq 59,6 / W 284) [5]; Fantasia in F (Wq 59,5 / W 279) [5]; Rondo in G (Wq 57,3 / W 271) [3]; Sonata in F (Wq 55,5 / W 243) [1]; Sonata in d minor (Wq 57,4 / W 208) [3]; Sonata in e minor (Wq 59,1 / W 281) [5]; Sonata in f minor (Wq 57,6 / W 173) [3]

Sources: [1] Sechs Clavier-Sonaten für Kenner und Liebhaber, Erste Sammlung, 1779; [2] Clavier-Sonaten nebst einigen Rondos fürs Forte-Piano für Kenner und Liebhaber, Zweite Sammlung, 1780; [3] Clavier-Sonaten nebst einigen Rondos fürs Forte-Piano für Kenner und Liebhaber, Dritte Sammlung, 1781; [4] Clavier-Sonaten und freye Fantasien nebst einigen Rondos fürs Forte-Piano für Kenner und Liebhaber, Vierte Sammlung, 1783; [5] Clavier-Sonaten und freye Fantasien nebst einigen Rondos fürs Forte-Piano für Kenner und Liebhaber, Fünfte Sammlung, 1785; [6] Clavier-Sonaten und freye Fantasien nebst einigen Rondos fürs Forte-Piano für Kenner und Liebhaber, Sechste Sammlung, 1787

Scores

The commemoration of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's death in 2014 has resulted in a considerable number of new recordings of his music. Obviously the main focus was his keyboard music as this is certainly the most important part of his oeuvre. It was in this genre that he made a name for himself and resulted in his being considered the most important composer of his time. The best-known part of his keyboard music is included in the six volumes which he published between 1779 and 1787 as pieces for Kenner und Liebhaber (connoisseurs and amateurs). They comprise sonatas, fantasias and rondos.

Recently I reviewed a complete recording of these volumes by Pieter-Jan Belder. The discs which are to be reviewed here include pieces from these volumes, except the one by Tini Mathot who included two pieces which were not published. It seems logical to compare them, but that doesn't make much sense. These three recordings and Belder's are no direct competition as there are many other recordings of single volumes or of pieces from this series. There is quite a lot to choose from as far as the interpretation is concerned, and that includes a complete recording of his keyboard works by Miklos Spányi (BIS). Only in some cases I have compared the four recordings to see how they differ in the artists' approach to the repertoire.

One of the main issues in regard to the performance of CPE Bach's keyboard works is the choice of instrument. In his time at least four keyboard instruments co-existed: the harpsichord, the clavichord, the tangent piano and the fortepiano. There can be little doubt that the clavichord was his favourite instrument. This allowed him to express his most personal feelings and emotions, which was a key element in his aesthetics as he explicated in his treatise Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen. The clavichord was also a common instrument as it was relatively cheap. The harpsichord was still an important instrument during a large part of Bach's career, but the pieces from the six volumes for Kenner und Liebhaber largely date from the latter part of his life. At that time the fortepiano had established itself as an alternative. It seems plausible to assume that in particular some Kenner owned such an instrument.

The three present recordings differ in the instruments the respective performers have chosen. Christine Schornsheim opted for the tangent piano, "a keyboard instrument whose strings are struck by freely moving slips of wood resembling harpsichord jacks rather than by hinged or pivoted hammers" (New Grove). In the booklet she explains her choice: "In my view, what characterizes a Tangentenflügel is that it unites all the timbres of stringed period keyboard instruments, so to speak. It can sound as gentle as a clavichord, even the harpsichord can almost be imitated, and the sound of an early fortepiano can similarly produced". Se plays a tangent piano built by Christoph Friedrich Schmahl in 1801.

Tini Mathot opted for a fortepiano, an original instrument by Anton Walter, not from the 1790s - mostly used in recordings - but probably from around 1785. Its sound is not very different from that of the tangent piano Christine Schornsheim uses. The explanation is given by Harm Vellguth in the booklet. "Following its restoration, the rebuilt hammer heads were not covered with leather for, to the present day, no reliable sources suggest a general use of leather at that time, when a moderator was present. The presence of a moderator (a cloth strip that slides between hammers and strings when a hand lever is operated) points to the sound production without the moderator as corresponding to the organ's Principale stop, i.e. sounding strong and bright. The strings are hit by the bare wood of the hammer, as we see in the tangent piano or a fortepiano with double rows of hammers (one row without leather, one row with leather). If there is a moderator, however, the second row of hammers with leather is omitted, for the moderator, when activated, produces almost the same sound as hammers with leather". I have seldom heard CPE Bach's music on a really suitable fortepiano, but this comes close to what is perhaps the ideal instrument as far as the fortepiano is concerned.

Roberto Cecchato plays also an original fortepiano from the same time, built around 1785 by an anonymous maker, and part of the Edwin Beunk Collection. It sounds very different from the instrument Tini Mathot plays. It is clear that the hammers are covered with leather, but whether that is 'historically correct' is impossible to decide. Neither the booklet nor the website of the Edwin Beunk Collection include any details about this instrument.

As important as the choice of instrument is, the main issue is the way the music is interpreted, although there is evidently a connection between these two aspects. When I listened to Tini Mathot's performance I had the impression that her tempi are rather slow. I looked at the timings of the two other discs and also included Belder's recording and concluded that they can be divided into two 'camps': Mathot and Cecchetti on one side, Belder and Schornsheim on the other, certainly as far as the Rondos are concerned. To give you some idea of the differences: the Fantasia in C (Wq 59,6 / H 284) takes 7'26" (Schornsheim), 8'12" (Belder), 9'14" (Mathot) and 9'17" (Cecchetti) respectively. The Rondo in G (Wq 57,3 / H 271): 4'27" (Belder), 4'38" (Schornsheim), 5'43" (Cecchetti) and 8'22" (Mathot). As one can see these differences are substantial. In other cases there are also clear differences between the two 'camps', but mostly these are less dramatic than in the pieces just mentioned.

The differences in tempi are not decisive but reflect a different approach. The treatment of the rondos in comparison to the fantasias is particularly interesting. Bach stated that he included some rondos in every collection as these were the kind of pieces which amateurs were especially interested in. From this one may conclude that these are his least personal and least emotional works. That could result in a different treatment. When I listened to Mathot's interpretation of the Rondo in G which I just mentioned and later to the Fantasia in C I noticed that there is little difference between the two. Schornsheim also seems to treat them more or less the same way. In the interview in the booklet she explains that for her there is hardly a difference. "I think that he [CPE Bach] thought much more about selling his works. The Rondo form was simply highly popular at the time. Consequently, sales prospects were good. Ultimately, most of his Rondos are also Fantasias!" Maybe Tini Mathot shares this opinion. Cecchetti makes more of a difference between the two as the timings show but also in the way he plays them, for instance in regard to dynamic shading - which is stronger in Mathot's performance - and his treatment of the pauses. Mathot delivers the most dramatic and emotional interpretation of this Rondo I have heard, but whether that is in line with the composer's intention is a matter of debate.

If one has listened to Mathot and then turns to Schornsheim the contrast is considerable. The latter's tempi are consistently faster, the pauses shorter and the dynamic differences probably a little narrower. Even so I find her performance totally convincing as the many twists and turns which are so much a feature of CPE Bach's keyboard music come off perfectly. It was a good idea to focus on two genres from the six collections für Kenner und Liebhaber as it reveals how differently the composer has used this form, from almost deep despair to a kind of humour, as Schornsheim explains in the booklet.

That is not to say that I did not enjoy Tini Mathot's performances. I have already mentioned her fortepiano which is a major factor why I strongly recommend this disc, independent from the persuasiveness of the interpretation. I characterized her performance of the Rondo in G as dramatic, and that goes for the whole recording. Mathot emphasizes the emotional side of CPE Bach's oeuvre and she does so impressively. She fully explores the idiosyncracies of the instrument in the interest of expression.

That said, there are some issues which need mentioning. Mathot plays the trills as she - like her husband Ton Koopman - plays them on the harpsichord: they begin slowly and then the speed increases. That works very well on the harpsichord but not so well on this fortepiano. The sound of an individual note dies down quickly, and as a result the slow notes in a trill get too much weight which sounds rather unnatural. I also think that the desynchronization of right and left hand in the figure which opens the Fantasia in f sharp minor and which is repeated a number of times is exaggerated and a bit stereotypical. Again, it may sound completely natural on a harpsichord, but not here. These effects are also due to the pretty close miking.

On the whole I have enjoyed Riccardo Cecchetti's performances as well. They are less dramatic than Mathot's which is partly due to the instrument: because the hammers are covered with leather his fortepiano's sound is a little more muffled and lacks the sharp 'attack' of Mathot's instrument. However, the two fantasias are certainly not devoid of drama, especially thanks to the differentiated treatment of the tempo, sometimes speeding up and then slowing down. His dynamic shading is generally a little narrower, but mostly convincing, for instance in the closing allegretto from the Sonata in F (Wq 55,5 / H 243).

The tempi are a matter of debate. It is hard to decide what the 'correct' tempo is, assuming there is something like that in this repertoire. But some tempi are too slow: the second and third movement from the Sonata in f minor (Wq 57,6 / H 173) have the indications andante and andante grazioso respectively, but Cecchetti plays them like adagios. There is also hardly a difference in tempo between the adagio and the closing andantino from the Sonata in e minor (Wq 59,1 / H 281). I also haven't experienced the middle movement from the Sonata in d minor (Wq 57,4 /H 208) as a real cantabile like the character indication (cantabile e mesto) requires.

To sum it up: in their very own ways these three discs are convincing in shedding light on the various aspects of CPE Bach's keyboard oeuvre. Schornsheim is especially interesting because of her programme and the use of a tangent piano. The fortepiano which Tini Mathot plays should give us food for thought and that also goes for her dramatic interpretation. One could probably argue that Cecchetti adopts a middle course but that is not meant as a deprecation of his interpretations. If you can afford all three discs you are a lucky person.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Tini Mathot
Christine Schornsheim


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