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CD reviews

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

[I] "Tangere"
Alexei Lubimov, tangent piano
rec: July 2008, Antwerp, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekapel Elzenveld
ECM - 2112 (© 2017) (67'32")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Clavierstück für die rechte oder linke Hand allein in A (Wq 117,1 / H 241); Fantasia in D (Wq 117,8 / H 144); Fantasia in d minor (Wq 117,12 / H 224); Fantasia in G (Wq 117,11 / H 223); Fantasia in B flat (Wq 112,8 / H 146); Fantasia II in C (Wq 59,6 / H 284) [4]; Freye Fantasie in f sharp minor (Wq 67 / H 300); Rondo II in c minor (Wq 59,4 / H 283) [4]; Rondo II in d minor (Wq 61,4 / H 290) [5]; Solfeggio in C (Wq 112,10 / H 147); Solfeggio in c minor (Wq 117,2 / H 220); Solfeggio in E flat (Wq 117,3 / H 221); Solfeggio in A (Wq 117,4 / H 222); Sonata II in d minor (Wq 57,4 / H 208) [2]; Sonata VI in G (Wq 55,6 / H 187) [1]

[II] "A Sentimental Journey"
Mathieu Dupouy, fortepiano
rec: July 2017, Paris, Cité de la musique(amphithéâtre)
Label-Hérisson - LH17 (© 2018) (66'32")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Fantasia I in E flat (Wq 58,6 / H 277) [3]; Fantasia II in C (Wq 61,6 / H 291) [5]; Fantasia II in A (Wq 58,7 / H 278) [3]; Rondo I in E flat (Wq 61,1 / H 288) [5]; Rondo I in G (Wq 59,2 / H 268) [4]; Rondo I in A (Wq 58,1 / H 276) [3]; Rondo II in c minor (Wq 59,4 / H 283) [4]; Rondo III in B flat (Wq 58,5 / H 267) [3]; Sonata in G (Wq 65,48 / H 280); Sonata I in D (Wq 61,2 / H 286) [5]

Sources: [1] Sechs Clavier-Sonaten für Kenner und Liebhaber, Erste Sammlung, 1779 (Wq 55); [2] Clavier-Sonaten nebst einigen Rondos fürs Forte-Piano für Kenner und Liebhaber, Dritte Sammlung, 1781 (Wq 57); [3] Clavier-Sonaten und freye Fantasien nebst einigen Rondos fürs Forte-Piano für Kenner und Liebhaber, Vierte Sammlung, 1783 (Wq 58); [4] Clavier-Sonaten und freye Fantasien nebst einigen Rondos fürs Forte-Piano für Kenner und Liebhaber, Fünfte Sammlung, 1785 (Wq 59); [5] Clavier-Sonaten und freye Fantasien nebst einigen Rondos fürs Forte-Piano für Kenner und Liebhaber, Sechste Sammlung, 1787 (Wq 61)


Once the music of the mid-18th century was considered the product of a period which was not more than a transition between the baroque era and that of classicism. Today it is taken much more seriously as an expression of a style in its own right. That said, it certainly has the features of a period of transition. Peter Wollny, in his liner-notes to Alexei Lubimov's disc, summarizes it nicely thus: "Its protagonists pursued an aesthetic that viewed originality as the supreme artistic ideal, yet they were the offspring of an age in which the entire educational system was dominated by rote learning from codified patterns. Their music thus stood in a field of tension marked by complex ties to tradition on the one hand and a struggle for uniqueness of the other."

In the oeuvre of many composers the features of the past and the future coexisted. Some composers found it hard to find their way in this musical labyrinth. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach is a good example. His younger brother was the most prominent exponent of a new style, which was soon known as Empfindsamkeit, the translation of the English word 'sentimentalism', originally used to characterise a particular trend in literature. That style came especially to the fore in his keyboard music. For several years he was in the service of Frederik the Great of Prussia as court harpsichordist. One of his duties was to accompany Frederick when he played sonatas - oft from the pen of his teacher Johann Joachim Quanz - on his beloved transverse flute. Whether Bach had much opportunity to perform his own music at the court is questionable, as Frederick preferred the galant idiom of Quantz and was not too responsive to the experiments of his harpsichordist.

It seems likely that Bach played his keyboard music, and especially his keyboard concertos, during concerts in private circles among the higher echelons of society in Berlin. It earned him a reputation as one of Germany's main keyboard virtuosos. The various editions of mostly little keyboard works, which were printed between 1761 and 1766 in Berlin attest to that. In addition some sets of sonatas were published in Berlin, but also in Leipzig and Nuremberg. In 1767 he succeeded his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann as Musikdirektor in Hamburg. Among his duties were the composition of music for the services in the five main churches. As he had hardly written any sacred music before, this took much of his time. However, he did not want to lose his position as Germany's prime keyboard player. In 1770 another collection of keyboard pieces was printed, this time in Hamburg. Between 1779 and 1787 he published the six collections of pieces for Kenner und Liebhaber, which included three different genres: sonatas, rondos and fantasias. These pieces are by far his best-known; they also represent the part of his output which is most frequently performed and recorded. They are the core of both recordings; Lubimov adds some little pieces, which are seldom played, whereas Dupouy includes one sonata which is not part of these sets.

In a way that is disappointing as this means that we don't get here much that is not already available. The recording by Alexei Lubimov is the most interesting of the two, for two reasons. Firstly, he includes several little-known pieces, which are also not often played as they are very short and probably intended as pedagogical material in the first place. The little fantasies and the solfeggios are taken from the early editions, published in Berlin in the 1760s, and it is probably no coincidence that at the same time Bach published the second volume of his treatise Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Berlin, 1762). The most curious piece on this disc is the Clavierstück für die rechte oder linke Hand allein, a piece which can be played by one hand, left or right. The fact that these little pieces are written for pedagogical purposes does not diminish their substance in any way, provided they are taken seriously and played with the same engagement as the larger items. And that is exactly how Lubimov approaches them.

His disc is also interesting for the instrument he plays. The choice of instrument is a sensitive issue, and as the mid-18th century was a time of change, it is not easy to decide what instrument is the most appropriate for CPE Bach's keyboard works. In Berlin Bach may have played mostly the harpsichord; the fortepiano had not fully established itself yet. Another option is the tangent piano, and that is the instrument Lubimov plays here. It dates from 1794 and was built by Späth & Schmahl in Regensburg. Franz Jacob Späth was the most famous maker of such instruments; Mozart called the tangent piano in 1777 the Späthisches Klavier. In the booklet the tangent piano is described as "a very rare keyboard instrument with an unusual sound. When the keys are depressed, the strings are acted upon by narrow wooden slips. Several different stops fuse the qualities of harpsichords, clavichords, pianofortes and harps". Lubimov explores its features successfully to deliver compelling performances of the larger pieces included here. The programme opens with one of Bach's most personal and expressive pieces, the Freye Fantasie in f sharp minor, which also exists in a version with violin, and the additional nick-name C.P.E. Bachs Empfindungen. In his fantasias we meet Bach in his most personal style; such pieces were first and foremost intended for Kenner, such as the Fantasie II in C, which closes the programme. Both are played brilliantly by Lubimov. He is not less convincing in the beautiful Sonata VI in G. The andante from this sonata as well as the cantabile e mesto from the Sonata II in d minor are sensitively played with the fortepiano stop.

The recording dates from as far back as 2008. It has taken some time to make it to CD, but better late than never. This is definitely one of the best discs with CPE Bach's keyboard music that I have heard in recent years. I like the sound of the tangent piano, which is quite popular these days. It perfectly suits the style of CPE Bach, as this disc so convincingly shows.

The second disc is less interesting as far as the repertoire is concerned. Almost all the pieces included in the programme are very well known and available in several recordings; the exception may be the Sonata in G. It is disappointing that Mathieu Dupouy did not select less common items from CPE Bach's large output. There are enough pieces which are seldom played and recorded. That said, Dupouy is certainly an excellent interpreter, and in this recording he shows that the has a very good feeling for Bach's style. Within his programme he has made a sensitive selection of specimens of the three genres. The fantasias are the most personal pieces, whereas the rondos were included to please the Liebhaber. However, as Dupouy rightly observes in his liner-notes, there is no watershed between them. In his liner-notes he observes how CPE Bach breaks the barriers between the genres. "The fusion of styles is perhaps the most striking and most modern trait in the work of CPE Bach".

Although I like his playing, I am sceptical about his choice of instrument. He plays a fortepiano of 1791, built by the Gräbner brothers in Dresden. The distance in time to the pieces he plays, which were published in the 1780s, may seem not too large, but much changed pretty quickly in the construction of the fortepiano. Moreover, many of the pieces published in the 1780s are probably written much earlier. Often I had the feeling that the articulation was just not sharp enough because the instrument did not allow it to be more precise. I also found the dynamic differences a bit problematic. I would prefer an earlier fortepiano or a different instrument, such as the tangent piano or the clavichord. The latter was the most popular instrument among the Liebhaber of CPE Bach's time.

Even so, considering the overall level of interpretation, lovers of his music may consider adding this disc to their collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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