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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): Chamber music

[I] "Sonatas for Flute & Continuo"
Toshiyuki Shibata, transverse flutea; Bart Naessens, harpsichordb
rec: June 18 - 19 & 22, 2018 [?], Oudenaarde, Zwartezusterklooster
Et'cetera - KTC 1667 (© 2019) (64'37")
Liner-notes: E/F/NL
Cover & track-list

La Caroline (Wq 117,39 / H 98)b; La Gabriel (Wq 117,35 / H 97)b; Sonata in D (Wq 131 / H 561)ab; Sonata in e minor (Wq 124 / H 551)ab; Sonata in G (Wq 123 / H 550)ab; Sonata in g minor (Wq 65,27 / H 68)b; Sonata in a minor (Wq 128 / H 555)ab; Sonata in B flat (Wq 125 / H 552)ab

[II] "für mich" [for me]
Ensemble Klangschmelze
rec: Oct 23 - 25, 2013, Freiburg, Ensemblehaus
Ambitus - amb 96 957 (© 2018) (64'49")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Duetto in e minor (Wq 140 / H 598)ab; Freye Fantasie in f sharp minor 'C.P.E. Bachs Empfindungen' (Wq 67 / H 300)d; Quartet in D (Wq 94 / H 538)acd; Quartet in G (Wq 95 / H 539)acd; Quartet in a minor (Wq 93 / H 537)acd

Leonard Schelb, transverse flutea; Swantje Hoffmann, violinb, violac; Ricardo Magnus, fortepianod


In the mid-18th century, the transverse flute was one of the most fashionable instruments. No wonder, then, that Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach composed a large number of sonatas with a flute part, either for transverse flute and basso continuo or for obbligato keyboard and flute. For around thirty years he, in the capacity of harpsichordist, was in the service of Frederick the Great, who was a fanatical lover of the flute, who played the instrument himself under the tutelage of Johann Joachim Quanz. This may also have inspired CPE Bach to compose flute sonatas, but it is questionable whether these were played by Frederick. The latter's musical taste was rather conservative, and he did not really appreciate the style of his harpsichordist. Bach regularly took part in concerts in domestic surroundings in Berlin, and some of his sonatas may have been performed there. Considering that the flute was especially popular among amateurs and that this resulted in a large demand of music for flute, it is remarkable that none of the flute sonatas were published in CPE Bach's lifetime, with the exception of the Sonata in a minor (Wq 132) for unaccompanied flute.

The earliest sonatas date from the time that Emanuel was still under the guidance of his father. These bear the traces of the style of the baroque era, of which Johann Sebastian was a representative. However, they also include galant elements, which we also find in the late works of the old Bach, for instance in the Musicalisches Opfer. With time, the sonatas are becoming more personal and include features which are among the hallmarks of CPE Bach's style, such as Sturm und Drang and in particular the Empfindsamkeit. These express themselves in the use of harmony and the melodic twists and turns. The sonatas included in the programme Toshiyuki Shibata and Bart Naessens have recorded, bear witness to that. The stylistic developments are noticeable already in the two sonatas which open this disc: the Sonata in G is rather moderate and 'conventional' from a galant point of view, but the Sonata in e minor, written just two years later, is different, especially in the use of harmony.

In addition to the flute sonatas we hear some keyboard pieces. The two character pieces belong to the most remarkable part of CPE Bach's keyboard oeuvre. More than the Sonata in g minor, they bear the stamp of the composer's very personal style. Such pieces are probably best suited for a performance on the clavichord, but they do also well on the harpsichord. Here we can enjoy the qualities of Bart Naessens.

Those come less to the fore in the flute sonatas, as the balance between the two instruments is rather unsatisfying. The harpsichord has too little presence and is largely overshadowed by the flute. Shibata is an excellent performer, who produces a firm tone, and is not afraid to explore the full dynamic possibilities of his instrument. He can also be very sensitive, though, in the more intimate movements and passages. I can't remember having heard him before, and this disc is a most pleasant introduction to his art. I hope to hear more from him.

Despite the issue of the balance and the fact that CPE Bach's flute sonatas are available in other good recordings, this disc should be investigated by those who love his music.

A note on the production: it is time the people of Et'cetera get their act together. The dates of the recording are mentioned, but not the year. As Toshiyuki Shibata plays a flute dating from 2018, the recording must have taken place in 2018 or 2019. And the recording venue should be in 'Beglium'. Such embarrassing and annoying errors are certainly no exception in Et'cetera recordings. Is it that hard to avoid them?

Whereas the flute sonatas were written for amateurs in the first place, the three quartets are rather intended for professional performers. They are different as stylistically they point in the direction of the classical piano trio. Moreover, the technical requirements and the scoring for a keyboard with two equal keyboard parts and a part for viola makes them rather unsuitable for amateurs of those days.

The scoring has always been a subject of debate. Bach called them quartets but then only mentioned three instruments on the title page. In his personal catalogue he added "and bass". There are various theories about this. Some believe that the term "quartet" only refers to the number of parts, and point out that the right and left hand of the keyboard are treated on equal terms. This contrasts with what was common in works for keyboard solo and for keyboard with instruments, in which the left hand was confined to an accompanying role which could then be supported by a string bass. Others think - especially considering Bach's description in his own catalogue - that the addition of a cello is expected without mentioning it, just like the use of a string bass in a basso continuo part was never indicated. The cellist could simply follow the left hand of the keyboard and now and then add something of his own.

We may consider a third option. Maybe Bach wanted to leave it to the performers to decide whether or not to use a cello, depending on the choice of keyboard. This brings us to another issue: which keyboard instrument Bach had in mind? The original manuscript in the archive of the Berlin Singakademie and Bach's own catalogue have clavier which in the 18th century was mostly used for the clavichord. It could also refer to any strung keyboard instrument, and in this case the clavichord has to be excluded. The keyboard part has the indication clavicembalo. However, the keyboard part includes quite a number of dynamic indications which suggest the use of the fortepiano. And that could be the reason Bach added "and bass", probably meaning ad libitum. The fortepiano had established itself as a serious alternative to the harpsichord, but especially some older types were rather weak in the bass. In that case a cello could be useful to enforce the keyboard's bass part. That is not an issue in the recording by the Ensemble Klangschmelze: Ricardo Magnus plays a copy of a fortepiano by Anton Walter from around 1790, which seems an appropriate choice. The bass is well developed, and therefore the participation of a cello is not needed.

There is no lack of recordings of these three quartets, and these differ in the line-up, according to the options mentioned above. Overall, I prefer a performance with fortepiano without an additional cello, and from that perspective, this disc is recommendable. Moreover, the performers do a fine job here in exploring the dynamic character of these works. The improvisational traits also come off rather well, due to the differentiated treatment of the tempi: at some moments the performers slow down the tempo, which adds to the dramatic nature of these works. I rate these performances among the best available right now.

The quartets take not enough time to fill a disc. The performers have added two pieces, one well-known and one little-known. The Fantasia in f sharp minor is one of CPE Bach's most famous keyboard works. It is also one of his most personal pieces, as its subtitle - 'C.P.E. Bachs Empfindungen' (CPE Bach's emotions) - indicates. It is mostly played on the clavichord, and that seems the ideal instrument for this piece. However, Ricardo Magnus delivers a fine performance on the fortepiano. The Duet in e minor is the only piece of this kind in CPE Bach's oeuvre; a duet for two violins has been lost. It was included in a collection of miscellaneous pieces published in 1770. It is a typical product of its time in its alternation of passages in parallel motion and episodes in which the two instruments have independent parts. Loenard Schelb and Swantje Hoffmann are on their best in this work, which deserves to be better known.

All in all, this disc is a nice and valuable addition to the CPE Bach discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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Toshiyuki Shibata

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