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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): Sei Concerti per il Cembalo concertato (Wq 43 / H 471-476)

Andreas Staier, harpsichord
Freiburger Barockorchester
Dir: Petra Müllejans

rec: May 2010, Berlin, Teldex Studios
Harmonia mundi - HMC 902083.84 (2 CDs) (© 2011) (1.33'40")
Liner-notes: E/F/D

Concerto No 1 in F (Wq 43,1 / H 471); Concerto No 2 in D (Wq 43,2 / H 472); Concerto No 3 in E flat (Wq 43,3 / H 473); Concerto No 4 in c minor (Wq 43,4 / H 474); Concerto No 5 in G (Wq 43,5 / H 475); Concerto No 6 in C (Wq 43,6 / H 476)

The versatility of the oeuvre of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is impressive. With the exception of opera he contributed to any genre in vogue in his time. But he was first and foremost a composer of keyboard music, and that is what he was and is most famous for. No composer of the 18th century has written so many concertos for keyboard and orchestra as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. The catalogue lists 50 solo concertos and 10 sonatinas, plus two concertos and two sonatinas for two keyboards and orchestra. Among the solo concertos the six which Andreas Staier and the Freiburger Barockorchester have recorded take a special place.

Firstly, the six concertos were published, which was quite unusual for music of orchestral proportions. Printing all the parts was expensive, and such works didn't sell well, because they were usually beyond the grasp of amateurs. Despite being directed towards "connoisseurs and amateurs" Andreas Staier insists that they are technically no less complicated than the concertos Bach composed for his own use. The advertisement in which the publication of these concertos was announced adds that they can be played without orchestra, apparently in order to increase sales among amateurs. But Staier believes that playing these works "as solo harpsichord pieces from the keyboard reduction in any case represents a poor substitute".

The second reason that they are remarkable is the fact that they seem to build a cycle. The opening and closing concertos are the most 'conventional' - if anything by Emanuel is conventional - and technically the relatively easiest. The two concertos at the heart of the set, the Nos. 3 and 4, are the most surprising and most daring. In all concertos we find many strong and often unexpected contrasts, and many movements are linked without any interruption. One finds many passages which are characterised by sudden and short interruptions of the orchestra, or short interventions of the harpsichord, sometimes just a couple of bars. These are the features of Bach's music, with its influences of Empfindsamkeit and Sturm und Drang. But the fourth and fifth concertos have more to offer. It is questionable, for instance, whether the Concerto No 4 in c minor has four movements or is in just one movement with four different sections. Staier compares it to a fantasia for keyboard like Mozart's Fantasia in c minor (KV 475). The relatively short opening allegro assai suddenly turns into a poco adagio which then is followed by a strongly contrasting tempo di minuetto. The closing section is an allegro assai, just like the opening section.

The Concerto No 3 in E flat has its idiosyncracies as well. "The second movement, Larghetto, is in a radiant C major and seems to embody a bright alternative world to the dark, warm E flat major of the Allegro. But already after the first harpsichord solo something astonishing occurs: the tutti replies with the opening motif of the first movement." Bach even goes so far as gradually replacing the motifs from this second movement with material from the first. According to Staier this is unique in the history of music. The Concerto No 5 in G also holds a surprise: the first movement begins with a slow introduction, something we know from the classical symphony but is highly unusual in a solo concerto. The first movement is followed by an adagio which is an extended version of the slow beginning of the concerto. So what seems to point into the future could also be interpreted as a reminscence of the past: the French overture: slow - fast - slow. The first movement of the Concerto No 2 in D consists of a sequence of five sections: the basic tempo of allegro di molto is twice interspersed by sections with the indication of andante.

All these features make sure listening to these concertos is a most enthralling experience. And that is also due to the performances. In fact, this is one of the most exciting recordings I have heard all year. Andreas Staier is simply brilliant, not only technically, but also in the way he deals with the often large contrasts and the many surprises these concertos have in store. He plays a harpsichord which is a copy of a Hass of 1734 which is a quite powerful instrument, especially because of the uncommon 16' stop. Staier uses it sparingly, but it gives additional opportunities to underline the contrasts in the score. The Freiburger Barockorchester is one of the best in the business, and it is absolutely in top form here. In particular the treatment of dynamics is impressive. This, and the way the unexpected turns and twists are handled, are an essential prerequisite to fully reveal the qualities of these six concertos.

Andreas Staier is not only an excellent keyboard player, he also eloquently explains what is so special about this music, and which decisions he has taken in regard to performance practice. That is all very helpful in understanding and appreciating the brilliance of Carl Philipp Emanuel's keyboard music. This production goes straight to my list of recordings of the year.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Andreas Staier
Freiburger Barockorchester

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