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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): "Testament et promesses"

Aline Zylberajch, tangent piano; Alice Piérot, violina

rec: Oct 4 - 7, 2012, Vaucluse, La Courroie
Encelade - 1201 (© 2013) (70'47")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Arioso for keyboard and violin in A (Wq 79/H 535)a; Fantasia for keyboard in c minor (Wq 63,6/H 75) [1]; Fantasia for keyboard with violin accompaniment in f sharp minor 'C.P.E. Bachs Empfindungen' (Wq 80/H 536)a; 12 Variations on 'Folies d'Espagne' for keyboard (Wq 118,9/H 263); Sonata for keyboard in A (Wq 55,4/H 186) [2]; Sonata for keyboard and violin in c minor (Wq 78/H 514)a

Sources: [1] 18 Probestücke in 6 Sonaten, 1753; [2] Clavier-Sonaten nebst einigen Rondos … für Kenner und Liebhaber, II, 1780

When in the second half of the 18th century the name Bach was used, it mostly referred to Carl Philipp Emanuel. He was by far the most famous composer in Germany, and well-known even beyond the borders of his country. Composers of a later generation were strongly influenced by his compositions, especially his keyboard works. The English scholar Thomas Twining even stated that Europe was in the grasp of Carlophilipemanuelbachomania. His friend Charles Burney once paid Emanuel a visit in Hamburg. At his request the then already aged composer improvised a piece at his beloved clavichord. Soon he was so overwhelmed with emotion that tears welled up in his eyes.

This bears witness to a feature of the style of the Empfindsamkeit of which Bach was one of the main proponents. Emotion certainly played a role in the music of the preceding era which was represented by his father Johann Sebastian. He and composers of his time aimed at stirring the feelings of an audience through the use of Affekte. But these were not personal: they didn't represent the composer's own emotions nor were the performers expected to share those emotions. That was different in the age of sensibility, as Empfindsamkeit is sometimes translated. Carl Philipp Emanuel specifically stated that the performer had to feel the emotions which were expressed in the music. Otherwise it was impossible to communicate them to an audience.

That ideal is particularly expressed in his own keyboard compositions. He was famous as an improviser, and one must assume that many of his keyboard works found their origin in such improvisations. This explains their often very personal character and their capricious texture. The Fantasia in f sharp minor which opens this disc can be considered the most eloquent reflection of the composer's ideals. It was originally written for keyboard solo and it is telling that it was called C.P.E. Bachs Empfindungen. It was his last keyboard work and is a sampling of emotions, which follow each other in quick succession and seemingly at random. Strong emotional outbursts, introverted episodes, sudden pauses - you just never know what is to come next. The key of F sharp minor was seldom used in previous eras and was characterised by Johann Mattheson as "misanthropic". The tempo indication points in the same direction: "sehr traurig und ganz langsam" (very sorrowful and very slow). Later Bach added a part for violin which adds little of any real substance, but rather gives colour and additional weight to some passages. It also serves to emphasize the dynamic contrasts so typical for this piece.

This fantasia is followed by a series of variations on the famous Folia theme. It is a virtuosic showpiece which reflects the composer's own brilliance at the keyboard. In comparison the last piece of the programme, the Arioso in A for keyboard and violin, also a series of variations, is more modest in this respect, and more 'conventional', as it were. This must not be taken as inferring that it is in any way less compelling.

Bach didn't compose many pieces for keyboard with violin. In comparison his oeuvre for keyboard with transverse flute is much larger, probably because it was the most fasionable instrument of his time and because of the love for the flute of his employer for many years, Frederick the Great. His earliest sonatas with a violin part were written when he was still under the guidance of his father and are not unlike the latter's sonatas for harpsichord and violin. The later sonatas show more of the characteristics of his keyboard works, especially in regard to the expression of emotion. That comes especially to the fore in the adagio ma non troppo from the Sonata in c minor. The violin seems here to play with mute, but the liner-notes don't mention it. It would be in line with that time's convention of strings playing con sordino in the slow movements of chamber music and symphonies. The balance favours the violin a little too much here.

The two remaining keyboard works are again vintage Emanuel. In the Sonata in A he makes use of the whole dynamic range of the keyboard, from pianissimo to fortissimo. The Fantasia in c minor belongs to his earliest compositions. It is one of the 18 Probestücke which were included in his treatise Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen, printed in 1753. It is a rather dramatic piece which inspired the poet Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg (1737-1823) to add a German adaptation of Hamlet's monologue to it. (This piece has been recorded by Klaus Mertens and Ludger Rémy; CPO, 1997).

The choice of keyboard instrument is always a tricky affair in music of this period. Various instruments coexisted: the harpsichord, the fortepiano and the clavichord. There are various arguments in favour of one or the other. The clavichord is perfectly suited to many of Bach's keyboard music, but is less suitable for music with a melody instrument. The harpsichord is sometimes a problem because of its inability to produce crescendos and diminuendos. Despite its two manuals it can't do justice to the whole array of dynamic indications in many keyboard works. Aline Zylberajch has opted for the tangent piano which was very popular at the time. The number of extant instruments bear witness to that. It has various features which make it perfectly suited for keyboard pieces as well as chamber music. It has many options in regard to registration and can sound like a harpsichord as well as a fortepiano. Miklos Spányi used it frequently in his celebrated recording project of all Bach's keyboard works (BIS). Ms Zylberajch perfectly explores its characteristics and as a result the many twists and turns come off with great incisiveness. Just listen to the opening Fantasia where the playing of both artists is simply breathtaking. It is programmatic for the whole recording.

This is a most compelling disc which fully reveals the fascinating musical personality of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Aline Zylberajch

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