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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): "Keyboard Music"

Giovanni Togni, tangent piano

rec: Nov 2 - 3, 2013, Lugano, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI
Dynamic - CDS 7762 (© 2016) (66'44")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover & track-list

Fantasia II in C (Wq 61,6 / H 291) [5]; Rondo II in c minor (Wq 59,4 / H 283) [4]; Rondo II in d minor (Wq 61,4 / H 290) [5]; Sonata I in C (Wq 55,1 / H 244) [1]; Sonata IV in A (Wq 55,4 / H 186) [1]; Sonata II in F (Wq 56,4 / H 269) [2]; Sonata III in f minor (Wq 57,6 / H 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, Fünfte Sammlung, 1785; [5] Clavier-Sonaten und freye Fantasien nebst einigen Rondos fürs Forte-Piano für Kenner und Liebhaber, Sechste Sammlung, 1787

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was generally considered the most important composer of keyboard music of his time, not only in Germany but also in Europe. His repute was such that the English music journalist and historian Charles Burney paid him a visit and wanted to hear him play. He called him "not only one of the greatest composers that ever existed, for keyed instruments, but the best player, in point of expression (...)". The latter made him the main representative of the sensitive style (Empfindsamkeit) as well as the Sturm und Drang, basically two sides of the same coin. His compositions also influenced composers of the next generations, such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Bach was also one of the first who embraced the fortepiano, a relatively new instrument whose origins go back to around 1700, when Bartolomeo Cristofori developed a keyboard instrument which allowed to vary dynamics during play. However, in only a few instances Bach specifically mentioned the fortepiano as the instrument on which to play his keyboard works. The reason is that he always had the amateurs of his time in mind: it was not very profitable to publish music which could only be played by professionals. Therefore every collection included some pieces within the reach of amateurs. They still played the harpsichord, which remained one of the most common keyboard instruments until the end of the 18th century. Even so, the most popular instrument in the 17th and 18th centuries was the clavichord. It was so common that it was never specifically mentioned. The word clavier probably referred to this instrument in the first place, but was often generally used for every keyboard instrument. The clavichord was Bach's favourite instrument. When Burney visited him, Emanuel played on his clavichord and was so touched by the music that he couldn't hold his tears.

Giovanni Togni uses an instrument especially popular in the second half of the 18th century: the tangent piano. New Grove gives this description: "A keyboard instrument whose strings are struck by freely moving slips of wood resembling harpsichord jacks rather than by hinged or pivoted hammers." Togni plays a tangent piano from 1797, constructed by Christoph Friedrich Schmahl from Regensburg, son-in-law of Franz Jakob Späth the younger, who is said to have invented the tangent piano in 1751. Whereas the clavichord is not suitable for public performances because of its very soft sound, the tangent piano can easily make itself heard in larger spaces. It combines the virtues of the various keyboard instruments in vogue in Bach's time. It has the dynamic possibilities of the fortepiano, and if it is played very softly it comes pretty close to the sound of the clavichord. At the same time it is able to produce the "crystal-clear sounds of the harpsichord", as Togni writes in his liner-notes. As it also offers the "expressive nuances of the fortepiano and the tone-colour variations given by registers" it is pretty much the ideal instrument for the repertoire Togni has chosen.

It is a bit of a shame that he has only selected pieces from the collections for Kenner und Liebhaber because these are the most frequently-played from Bach's oeuvre. There is much more to choose from, and a large part of Bach's output is hardly known. That said, this disc offers a representative selection of the various genres in Bach's keyboard music. The rondos are those pieces which amateurs were especially interested in. In a letter to a friend Bach wrote: "The partiality for rondos here is quite as notable as in London, therefore I've followed it myself in order to increase my sale. I know from experience that there are many who buy my collections only for the rondos". The fantasias are at the other end of the scale: here we find Bach at his most individual, and these also contain his most personal expression. They have their origins in his improvisations.

The sonatas are different in regard to technical requirements and character. The Sonata in C and the Sonata in F are certainly intended for amateurs. They are rather short; the latter sonata has even only two movements, as was common in pieces of a diverting nature. The Sonata in A and the Sonata in f minor are much more substantial and technically more demanding. The former was published in 1779 but written in 1765, when Bach was harpsichordist at the court of Frederick the Great. Its dynamic range goes from pianissimo to fortissimo which suggests that it was not meant for the harpsichord but for the clavichord or the fortepiano. In the 1779 edition it comprises three movements: allegro assai, poco adagio and allegro. Giovanni Togni closes this work with a rondo which is added to this sonata in an English edition published by Domenico Corri, an Italian composer who established himself as a music publisher in London in 1790. Whether this piece, which is recorded here for the first time, is really from Bach's pen, is questionable. If it is authentic, it was certainly not intended to be part of this sonata, because as far as I know none of Bach's sonatas include a rondo. The Sonata in f minor has no really slow movement: the second is an andante, the last has the indication andantino grazioso.

As I said, the tangent piano is a very appropriate instrument for Bach's music, and Togni shows its features in the interest of an expressive performance. He effectively uses the dynamic possibilities and is well aware of the strong contrasts within a sonata or even a single movement. The Fantasia in C is one of Bach's most famous keyboard pieces and receives an outstanding and captivating performance. The tempi are mostly right, but the andante from the Sonata in f minor seems a bit too slow to me; it is more like an adagio than an andante.

The tangent piano is a pretty common instrument for keyboard music of the late 18th century these days, but I don't think there are that many discs where only this instrument is used. Apart from offering a nice cross section of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's keyboard music, this disc allows us to become acquainted with a highly fascinating instrument which is tailor-made for the sensitive style of the Hamburg Bach.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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