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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): "Beyond the Limits - Complete String Symphonies"

Gli Incogniti
Dir: Amandine Beyer

rec: Nov 2019, Arras, Théâtre
Harmonia mundi - HMM 905321 (© 2021) (71'13")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Symphony in e minor (Wq 177 / H 652); Symphony in G (Wq 182,1 / H 657); Symphony in B flat (Wq 182,2 / H 658); Symphony in C (Wq 182,3 / H 659); Symphony in A (Wq 182,4 / H 660); Symphony in b minor (Wq 182,5 / H 661); Symphony in E (Wq 182,6 / H 662)

Amandine Beyer, Yoko Kawakubo, Flavio Losco, Vadym Makarenko, Corinne Raymond-Jarczyk, Alba Roca, Katia Viel, Helena Zemanova, violin; Marta Paramo, Ottavia Rausa, viola; Marco Ceccato, Rebeca Ferri, cello; Baldomero Barciela, violone; Anna Fontana, harpsichord

From the mid-18th century until his death in 1788, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was generally considered one of the main German composers. His music was not only known in the German-speaking part of Europe, but even in England. However, his style of composing was not universally appreciated. In 1784, the European Magazine and London Review criticized the "capricious manner, odd breaks, whimsical modulations and often very childish manner, mixed with an affectation of profound science" of his music. It seems unlikely that the author knew the six symphonies for strings which are the subject of the disc under review here, as they were not printed during his lifetime. The assessment of CPE Bach's music was probably founded on his keyboard works which were available in printed editions.

Ironically, Bach himself stated that in this part of his oeuvre he had to impose restrictions on what he brought to paper. In his autobiography of 1773 he wrote: "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". That was the case, for instance, with the six collections of keyboard pieces that he published between 1779 and 1787. From the onset Bach had two groups of purchasers in mind: professional keyboard players (Kenner) and amateurs (Liebhaber). This would increase sale and explains the different technical demands in every collection. Whereas the sonatas and rondos were intended for amateurs, the fantasias were aimed at professionals. These are also his most personal works.

Bach must have been delighted when Baron Gottfried van Swieten, then Austrian ambassador in Berlin, commissioned him in 1773 to compose a set of symphonies with the specific instruction that he should "let himself go, without taking heed of the difficulties that must necessarily arise in terms of their execution". This resulted in six symphonies for strings and basso continuo, which are a demonstration of Bach's personal style as the main representative of the Empfindsamkeit. The main feature of these symphonies is that they lack any pattern or consistency of emotions. They are rather a turmoil of personal feelings, which is very much in line with Bach's ideal, which he laid down in his treatise about Die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen. The same ideal was expressed by Johann Joachim Quantz in his treatise on playing the flute: "The player should change in every bar to a different mood, and should be able to appear alternately sad, joyous, serious etc, such moods being also of great importance in music". In order to make sure that music was correctly executed in line with this ideal, Bach stated that composers "act wisely who in notating their works include terms, in addition to tempo indications, which help to clarify the meaning of a piece".

Obviously, the performance of music written according to this ideal was far from easy. No wonder that Bach was nervous when his symphonies were performed for the first time. "[Johann Friedrich] Reichardt led from his violin, to the great relief of the nervous composer", according to the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung in 1814. "Although they were not played wholly accurately, one could hear with delight the original, daring flow of ideas and the great variety and novelty in the forms and modulations". It is remarkable that these pieces are still able to amaze performers and audiences alike, which explains why they are frequently performed and recorded, either as a set, such as by Gli Incogniti, or separately, as part of anthologies. Over the years I have heard several fine performances of individual symphonies, but the complete recording that has been my favourite is the one by The English Concert under the direction of Trevor Pinnock (DG Archiv). This new recording by Amandine Beyer, directing her ensemble Gli Incogniti, may well become my new favourite performance, even though I still hold dear Pinnock's reading. Beyer is known for her energetic playing, and this music is fitting her like a glove. The contrasts in tempo are perfectly realized, and the players are not afraid to explore the dynamic differences to the full. What is especially important is that a performance does justice to the capriciousness and unpredictability of these symphonies, and here Beyer and her colleagues succeed with flying colours. The only issue may be the recording: both the first performance and those which took place in Vienna during concerts organized by Baron von Swieten may have taken place in rather intimate surroundings. I would have preferred a little more direct recording, in a more intimate acoustic. However, this is a minor issue in comparison with the brilliant musical achievements.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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