musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH & Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART: "Keyboard Variations"

Ewald Demeyere, harpsichord

rec: March 7 - 8, 2019, Antwerp, deSingel
Challenge Classics - CC72845 (© 2020) (63'32")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list
Score CPE Bach, H 263
Scores Mozart

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Arioso with variations in C (Wq 118,10 / H 259); Variations on Les Folies d'Espagne in d minor (Wq 118,9 / H 263); Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791): Variations on Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman (KV 265/300e); Variations on La belle Françoise in E flat (KV 353/300f)

Variations are among the most popular musical forms in history. Long before compositions with the term 'variation' were written, performers repeated tunes or songs or even single phrases adding their own embellishments. The art of ornamentation was one of the most fundamental skills a performing musician was expected to master, and was the subject of many treatises. Popular tunes have always been a favourite subject of variations. Around 1600, a number of composers wrote variations on a song, known as La Monica in Italy, and under other names elsewhere. The English virginalists took popular tunes for variations, and throughout history, organists have played - often improvised - variations on hymns.

The present disc brings together four sets of variations by two composers in whose oeuvre the keyboard plays a central role. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was considered the main keyboard player and composer for the keyboard of his time in Germany. He had a strong influence on composers of the next generations. It is mostly his sonatas, fantasias and rondos that are the subject of public performances and recordings. In comparison, his variations are not that well-known, probably with the exception of the variations on Les Folies d'Espagne, especially as this is one of the most frequently varied tunes of the 17th and 18th centuries. Mozart's variations, on the other hand, belong among his most revered keyboard works, and that goes especially for those on Ah, dirai-je, Maman. The nice thing about this disc is that the well-known variations are combined with sets of variations that are far less familiar.

The Arioso which is the subject of nine variations by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, was first conceived as a piece in binary form, whose two sections were repeated. It was included in a collection of six easy pieces dated 1775. Bach later extended it to a set of variations for keyboard, violin and cello; as such it was part of a set of sonatas for this scoring, published in 1777. The set of variations performed here, is of a later date, and includes varied repeats of each variation, which the performer can insert; Bach also suggested to omit the parts for violin and cello.

The Variations on Les Folies d'Espagne date from 1778. The title of the subject refers to Spain, but the folia was originally a Portuguese dance of the 15th century. In the course of history it was adopted as a favourite subject for variations. Among composers who used it as such, were Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi, and in France Marin Marais. In Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's time, it was well past its zenith, and Ewald Demeyere, in his liner-notes, calls it "an old-fashioned musical idiom". This may well have been one of the reasons that it was not published in Bach's lifetime; the first printed edition dates from 1803. The variations differ in tempo, from 'very slow' to 'very rapid', and Bach makes use of the style brisé, another 'old-fashioned' compositional technique, which has its origin in French lute music of the 17th century, and was then adopted by French keyboard composers.

The two sets of variations by Mozart seem to have been written in 1781/82 in Vienna. The twelve variations on La belle Françoise were published in 1786. The title refers to a song which belonged to the genre of the vaudeville and was probably already rather old at the time Mozart became acquainted with it, probably during his stay in Paris in 1778. Whereas this song is completely forgotten, the song on which Mozart wrote variations under the title of Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman, is still well-known as a children's song. The first printed edition of 1785 omitted the title of the song; two years later another edition mentioned the title under which it has become known. The variations were dedicated to Josepha Barbara von Auernhammer, one of Mozart's pupils, and apparently highly skilled, as Mozart performed pieces for two keyboards with her. This is confirmed by the level of these variations.

Demeyere states that the combination of CPE Bach and Mozart in one programme is rather unusual. I am not so sure about that, but he is certainly right in that the choice of instrument is a key factor, when these two composers are performed back to back. Although Bach's keyboard works are often played on a clavichord (albeit seldom in public concerts because of its soft sound) or a fortepiano, many of his works can perfectly be played on the harpsichord. For most of his life, the harpsichord was very much in vogue, especially among amateurs, for whom he wrote most of his keyboard works (the Liebhaber). The use of a harpsichord in the variations by Mozart is far more uncommon. Demeyere writes that both composers played the harpsichord frequently. However, in the time Mozart composed the sets of variations performed here, he had firmly embraced the fortepiano. From that perspective, I am less happy with the choice of the harpsichord for these two sets of variations. The lack of dynamical possibilities is one of the factors which make these performances less convincing.

However, there is another feature which bothers me: the tempi. I compared these performances with other recordings, and this confirmed my impression that Demeyere's tempi are rather slow. Obviously, there is no fixed tempo, and there is certainly room for variation. I didn't find it problematic in the variations on Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman, which for me is the best part of this disc. The Arioso with variations is the most unsatisfying part: the tempi are not only rather slow, but also quite uniform. I would have liked more variety in the way the different variations are played.

Ewald Demeyere is a fine keyboard player, and there is nothing wrong with his playing as such. Although I question the use of the harpsichord in Mozart for historical reasons, it offers an interesting perspective on these two pieces. It is also nice not to hear them on a copy of a 1795 Walter fortepiano, which undoubtedly would be highly unhistorical. However, from a stylistic point of view, these performances have not entirely convinced me.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Ewald Demeyere

CD Reviews