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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH & Johann Gottfried MÜTHEL: Keyboard Music

[I] "Keyboard Music of the Empfindsamer Style"
Preethi de Silva, harpsichorda, fortepianob
rec: June & July 1983, Claremont, Ca., Pomona College (Bridges Hall of Music)*; May 18, 2010, Claremont, Ca., Scripps Performing Arts Centre (Garrison Theater)**
First Hand Records - FHR28 (R) (© 2014) (54'43")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Sonata VI in b minor (Wq 49,6 / H 35)a* [1]; 12 Variationen über die Folie d'Espagne (Wq 118,9 / H 263)a**; Johann Gottfried MÜTHEL (1728-1788): Arioso I avec XII Variations in Gb* [2]; Arioso II avec XII Variations in c minorb* [2]

[1] Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Sei sonate per cembalo, 1744 ('Württembergische Sonaten'); [2] Johann Gottfried Müthel, III Sonates et II Ariosi avec XII Variations pour le Clavessin, 1756

[II] Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH: "Six Collections of Sonatas, Free Fantasias, and Rondos for Connoisseurs and Amateurs - First Collection (Leipzig, 1779)"
Preethi de Silva, harpsichorda, clavichordc, fortepianob
rec: Oct 1995, Cambridge, Mass., Music Rooma; August 1996, Leverett, Mass., Studio Dufaybc
Centaur - CRC 3279 (R) (© 2013) (77'07")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Sonata I in C (Wq 55,1 / H 244)a; Sonata II in F (Wq 55,2 / H 130)c; Sonata III in b minor (Wq 55,3 / H 245)b; Sonata IV in A (Wq 55,4 / H 186)b; Sonata V in F (Wq 55,5 / H 243)b; Sonata VI in G (Wq 55,6 / H 187)b

Sechs Clavier-Sonaten für Kenner und Liebhaber, I, 1779

Scores CPE Bach

Almost all the members of the Bach family were keyboard players, and several of them were known for their virtuosity. That also goes for the generation of the sons of Bach. Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian: they were all highly-skilled keyboard players. However, in the second half of the 18th century the use of the name Bach in connection to the keyboard always referred to the second of them: Carl Philipp Emanuel. He was highly admired as a player at and composer for the keyboard. In the latter capacity he had a marked influence on the three great composers of the classical era: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. For a long time he was one of the few composers of his generation whose music was known and performed. Today a programme as Preethi de Silva plays at this disc is more common than at the time it was first released. Even so, Johann Georg Müthel is still a somewhat unknown quantity.

In 2014 the birth of Emanuel in 1714 was commemorated and that must have been the reason that these two recordings from the 1980s and 1990s respectively were reissued, the first with an additional piece recorded in 2010. This can be welcomed, even though the two works on the first disc are among Bach's best-known. The pieces by Müthel are far less familiar, and although some sonatas from the first set für Kenner und Liebhaber are played and recorded now and then, there are few recordings of the complete set.

From Bach's writings we know that he emphasized the importance of emotion. The liner-notes in the booklet to the first disc begin with a famous quotation from his book, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments: "Play from the soul, not like a trained bird". Elsewhere he states that a performer must experience the emotions which are expressed in a piece in order to perform it in a convincing manner. The English writer Charles Burney met him in his old age in Hamburg, and when he asked the master to play, Bach went to his clavichord to play one of his own pieces, and soon tears were rolling down his cheeks. His compositions written for others or printed for common use - especially of amateurs - were obviously less personal and more restrained. In his autobiography of 1773 he writes: "Since I have had to compose most of my works for specific individuals and for the public, I have always been more restricted in them than in the few pieces that I have written merely for myself". Even so, many of them reflect the features of his style. One of these is unpredictability: almost every piece includes unexpected turns, such as shifts in metre or tempo, sudden pauses or dynamic contrasts.

Among the pieces he wrote for "specific individuals" are the six Württemberg Sonatas. They were dedicated to Duke Carl Eugen of Württemberg who was Bach's student during his tenure at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin. Bach himself rated the Sonata No. 6 in b minor among his most important pieces as he referred to it in his treatise mentioned above. In the first movement the contrast in dynamics is especially notable, achieved here through the juxtaposition of full chords with passages for one or two voices. In the second movement the use of rests and the repetition of a motif at a ever higher pitch are among the main features. The last movement is dominated by counterpoint and refers to the style of the baroque era.

The Sechs Clavier-Sonaten für Kenner und Liebhaber which were published in 1779 are among the pieces Bach composed "for the public". It was his intention to publish just this one set, but as they sold "like hot cakes", as he himself wrote, he decided to continue with more sets; the sixth and last collection with this title dates from 1787. There is quite some variety in character and technical requirements within this set. In her liner-notes to the second disc Preethi de Silva mentions that a contemporary reviewer in the Hamburger Correspondent divided the sonatas in two groups, based on the level of difficulty: the sonatas 1, 3 and 5 were for Liebhaber (amateurs) and the sonatas 2, 4 and 6 for Kenner (professional players). Some notable elements are the indication of Bebung in the opening movement of the Sonata II in F which indicates the use of the clavichord. The slow movement includes some strongly dissonant chords. The same goes for the slow movement from the Sonata V in F. The closing movement of the Sonata III in b minor is based on an ostinato pattern. The opening movement of the Sonata IV in A is quite dramatic and ends with a short transition to the next movement. The Sonata VI in G is one of the most brilliant in the set, and especially in the last movement we meet the contrasts which are so characteristic of Bach's keyboard music.

He did not compose many variation works. The 12 Variationen über die Folie d'Espagne rank among his best-known compositions. It offers less opportunities for expression than other works, but all the more for a display of technical brilliance. In comparison the two sets of variations by Müthel are full of expression. That is due to the fact that they are based on ariosi which he had written himself rather than on a pre-existing bass pattern as Bach's Folies d'Espagne.

Müthel is still a rather neglected composer. He was born near Hamburg as son of an organist. He learned to play the keyboard, the violin and the flute. In 1747 he entered the service of Duke Christian Ludwig of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Three years later he was allowed to go to Leipzig to study with Bach, but the latter died only three months after his arrival. Müthel travelled across Germany and met several of the main composers of his time, including Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in Berlin. In 1753 he settled in Riga which was then a cosmopolitan city with a rich cultural life. He became Kapellmeister to Baron Otto Hermann von Vietinghoff, the Russian privy councillor, who had a chapel of 24 musicians. Müthel also acted as organist of Riga's principal church. Müthel seems to have been a rather odd character who became increasingly eccentric as he grew older. His output is very small, but substantial. His complete orchestral and chamber music was recorded by the German ensemble Musica Alta Ripa (MDG, 1992).

The main recording of his keyboard music is the twofer with his III Sonates et II Ariosi avec 12 Variations by the Dutch keyboard player Menno van Delft (Teknon, 2004). The edition dates from 1756 and Van Delft believes that these pieces are specifically intended for the clavichord. Preethi de Silva plays the two Ariosi but apparently she doesn't play all the repeats as the timings indicate: 12'57" vs 22'41" and 14'42" vs 25'40" respectively.

The choice of instrument is a matter of debate in music from this period as various instruments coexisted and composers mostly didn't specify which instrument they had in mind. The titlepages are mostly not very helpful: they usually give several options or use the word clavier. This term was most often used for the clavichord which was the most common instrument among amateurs. However, that doesn't exclude other instruments; it opens the possibility of using any kind of stringed keyboard instrument. The stylistic features, the time of publication and the kind of people for whom the music was written are the factors which have to be considered.

Preethi de Silva decided to play the first sonata from the set of six from 1779 on the harpsichord. The reason is the music: "The breathless baroque perpetuum mobile character of its first movement (reminiscent of Bach's own well-known Solfeggio in C minor) lends itself most effectively to a performance on the harpsichord". She plays a copy of a Taskin of 1769. It is a more satisfying choice than the instrument she plays in the two Bach items on the first disc. There she uses a copy of a Ruckers (1646) as enlarged by Taskin (1780) which produces a rather sharp and at times even aggressive sound. That is also due to the miking which is a bit too close for comfort. One is well advised to turn down the volume control. In comparison the copy of a Gräbner of around 1740 which is used for the Folies d'Espagne is a much better choice.

I already mentioned the indication of Bebung in the second sonata from 1779, which suggests the clavichord, and that is the instrument Ms de Silva has chosen. For the other four sonatas and the two compositions by Müthel Ms de Silva opted for the fortepiano. In the latter case I am not very happy with her choice. Menno van Delft chose the clavichord because "Müthel's palette of effects - from contrasting drama to cheerful melancholy and gallant Empfindsamkeit - flourishes on this very softest of keyboard instruments most of all". For this music a 'touch sensitive' instrument is needed. Other options could be the tangent piano and the fortepiano. If the latter is chosen as is the case here, it is important to choose the right instrument. A copy of a Johann Jakob Könnicke of 1796 seems not the right choice. It produces a rather big sound, and in particular the forte passages are overly loud. The sensitive style requires a different instrument, and if it has to be a fortepiano a Silbermann would be a much better option. In Bach's sonatas the fortepiano is more plausible but I again the instrument played here is too modern, considering the time of composition and publication: a copy of an instrument by Johann Schantz from around 1790. In both recordings I find the miking a bit too close.

Setting aside the issue of the choice of instruments, I have enjoyed Ms De Silva's performances. The many twists and turns in Bach's sonata are well realised, and the brilliance of his variations is amply demonstrated. I especially liked the way some notes are held - just as long as to create a large amount of tension. The passages with dissonants get exactly the right weight without being too demonstrative. Also important is the treatment of tempo - it is an essential feature in Bach's works and the contrasts in tempo are largely responsible for their dramatic character.

All in all, these discs give a good impression of what is typical of the keyboard repertoire in the time between the baroque era and the classical period.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Preethi de Silva

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