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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): Cello concertos & Sonatas for viola da gamba

[I] "Cello Concertos"
Christophe Coin, cello
Orquestra Barroca de Sevilla
Dir: Christophe Coin
rec: Nov 30 - Dec 1, 2014, Espartinas (Seville, ES), Iglesia Conventual dal Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Loreto
Passacaille - 1043 (© 2018) (68'40")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/ES
Cover & track-list

Concerto for cello, strings and bc in A (Wq 172 / H 439); Concerto for cello, strings and bc in a minor (Wq 170 / H 432); Concerto for cello, strings and bc in B flat (Wq 171 / H 436)

Dmitry Sinkovsky, Pedro Gandía, Martín, Oriol Algueró, Elena Davydova, Valentín Sánchez, Leo Rossi, José Manuel Villarreal, Miguel Romero, Antonio Almelaviolin; Aino Hildebrant, María de Gracia Ramírez, viola; Mercedes Ruiz, Miguel Ángel Aguiló, cello; Ventura Rico, double bass; Alejandro Casal, harpsichord

[II] "3 Sonatas for Viola da Gamba"
Johanna Rose, viola da gambaa; Javier Núñez, harpsichord
rec: [n.d., n.p.]
Rubicon Classics - RCD1019 (© 2017) 65'39")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata for keyboard in a minor (Wq 50,3 / H 138); Sonata for keyboard and viola da gamba in g minor (Wq 88 / H 541)a; Sonata for viola da gamba and bc in C (Wq 136 / H 558)a; Sonata for viola da gamba and bc in D (Wq 137 / H 559)a

Source: Sechs Sonaten fürs Clavier mit veränderten Reprisen, 1760


In the mid-18th century Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach did not only enjoy a wide reputation as Germany's best keyboard player and composer of keyboard music - which earned him the position of harpsichordist at the court of Frederick the Great - but he was also admired as a composer of instrumental music of various kinds. This was expressed by the music critic Johann Friedrich Reichardt with these words: "One recognises Bach's original spirit in all his works, even in the smallest pieces; all bear the stamp of originality; and all are identifiable among a hundred other pieces, even though each of them contains invention and novelty".

Emanuel's cello concertos are certainly specimens of this "invention and novelty". Whereas in Italy Antonio Vivaldi had written quite a number of cello concertos, in Germany the cello was still mainly used in the bass of an ensemble. There were some exceptions. Telemann never wrote a cello concerto, but gave the instrument once in a while a solo part in his concertos for three or four instruments, unlike his colleague Johann Sebastian Bach. However, the latter composed six suites for cello solo, which are the pinnacle of the cello literature. Another composer of music for cello was Giovanni Benedetto Platti, who was for most of his life in the service of Rudolf Franz Erwein von Schönborn, an avid amateur on the cello and collector of cello music. However, his compositions for the cello, like the suites by Bach, were intended for private performances. That was different with the solo concertos which Emanuel composed between 1750 and 1753.

In the baroque period solo concertos were basically ensemble pieces. They were often written for a chapel, and in those cases we don't know exactly who played the solo part. That was going to change in the mid-18th century. It was the time virtuosos travelled across Europe to show their skills. Some of them settled somewhere for a shorter or longer period of time and joined a musical establishment. Composers liked to explore their specific qualities. No wonder that the solo parts were given more prominence. The soloists get involved in a true dialogue with the orchestra. That is also the case with Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's cello concertos, which, according to Marc Vanscheeuwijck in his liner-notes to Christophe Coin's recording, were probably written for the Bohemian cellist Ignaz Frantisek Mara. Ernst Ludwig Gerber, in his Historisch-biographisches Lexikon der Tonkünstler (1790-92), wrote about him that "in his youth he was an excellent soloist on his instrument, and his tone and execution were extremely impressive". He entered the service of Frederick's court in 1742 as a chamber musician. He also composed concertos and sonatas for his own instrument.

Whether Emanuel's cello concertos were played at the court of Frederick is questionable. He may have been the court harpsichordist, but his employer did not really appreciate his music. It is likely that he mostly played his own music at public concerts in Berlin. Among the music he may have played, were in all likelyhood his keyboard concertos. Three of them are transcriptions of the cello concertos. He also transcribed these concertos for transverse flute. This is an indication that he not only liked them himself, but also that they were appreciated by performers and audiences. It has been a matter of debate as to which versions were the original ones. According to Vanscheeuwijck it is an established fact that the cello concertos came first. Only one of them has been preserved in autograph, the remaining two in copies. The Brussels Conservatory also owns a manuscript with written-out cadenzas for the slow movements of all three concertos as well as the opening allegro assai of the Concerto in a minor. This is another feature of the solo concerto of the post-baroque period. In baroque concertos performers nowadays sometimes add cadenzas of their own making. However, this practice is not very consistent and I have always had my doubts whether the addition of cadenzas in, for instance, concertos by Vivaldi is justified. The existence of written-out cadenzas for concertos written at a later period, such as these cello concertos, attests to the frequent application of this practice at the time.

Vanscheeuwijck comes up with an interesting observation, which concerns the size of the 'orchestra' at the time. He states that "the 'orchestra' was little more than a chamber ensemble". He refers to Quantz, who wrote that a large ensemble consisted of six violins (3/3), viola, cello, violone, bassoon and harpsichord, whereas a small ensemble did not require more than two violins per part. He concludes - but it is not entirely sure on which grounds - that the orchestra in the Concerto in a minor should be a 'large ensemble', and in the other concertos a small ensemble. He adds: "On the other hand, there is good evidence from later copies that Bach's concertos were performed many times again until well into the early 19th century, and in larger venues. Since these performances often required larger forces, this is the approach that has been opted for in the present recording". That is a real shame: it would have been nice if these observations had been put into practice. That would have made this recording a real alternative to the various recordings that are already available.

That said, these performances can easily hold their ground in competition with what is in the catalogue. Christophe Coin is one of the leading players of the baroque cello, and he delivers outstanding performances. The fast movements are zestful, the slow movements pathetic - in the positive sense of the word - and expressive. The orchestra is a perfect match. It explores the dynamic contrasts to the full and has the alertness to realise the sudden forte outbursts. It plays the slow movements with the right amount of sensitivity, fully aware of the traces of the Empfindsamkeit. This is the perfect opportunity to fill a gap in your collection, and if you have these concertos in other performances, you should seriously consider to add Coin's account.

The DVD is identical with the CD, and has no additional material to offer.

Emanuel's three sonatas for viola da gamba are further examples of pieces written for a specific virtuoso. In this case it was Ludwig Christian Hesse, who from 1741 to 1763 was a member of Frederick the Great's chapel. The composer and writer Johann Adam Hiller expressed the admiration for his talents: "The skill, attractiveness and fire in performance which our Mr Hesse possesses to such a high degree make him indisputably one of the greatest gambists of our time in Europe." Hesse did not make a name for himself as a composer, but inspired other composers, especially his colleagues in Frederick's chapel, to compose music for him. Johann Gottlieb Graun, for instance, composed a number of solo concertos for the viola da gamba. At that time the instrument had become more or less obsolete, and this explains why Emanuel's Sonata in g minor also exists in a version for viola.

Neither of these sonatas was published. Only the Sonata in g minor of 1759 has come down to us in autograph, the sonatas in C and in D - which date from 1745 and 1746 respectively - in copies that are predominantly in the hand of Johann Heinrich Michel, CPE Bach's principal copyist in Hamburg. All three sonatas are in three movements. In the Sonata in g minor these are in the order fast - slow - fast. The two basso continuo sonatas have a fast movement in the centre which is embraced by movements in a moderate tempo: they open with an andante (Wq 136) or an adagio ma non tanto (Wq 137) and end with an arioso.

One may wonder why someone like CPE Bach was interested in composing for such an 'old-fashioned' instrument. Apart from the presence of the above-mentioned Hesse which must have been a great inspiration, it is probably the sensitive character of the gamba which made him being attracted to it. It was his ideal to transmit affects directly from musician to listener and "[to] this end he utilises all the registers, all the possibilities of the viola da gamba: arpeggios and passages of double stopping contrast with elegiac melodies, virtuosity with simplicity, counterpoint with passionate affects, 'comforting meditation' with 'frenzy' (Raserey)" (Friederike Heumann). These elements come to the fore, for instance, in the Sonata in D, the technically most demanding of the three. The opening andante from the Sonata in C reflect the Empfindsamkeit. The Sonata in g minor is one of the increasing number of chamber music works with an obbligato part for the keyboard.

The performers emphasize the contrasts in these sonatas by their choice of tempi. The allegro di molto from the Sonata in D, for instance, is played at a high speed. Even so, Johanna Rose manages to create some strong dynamic accents, which lends this piece a very speechlike character. In the ariosi the two artists take their time, and this results in wonderful moments of lyricism. Overall, the tempi are well chosen. That also goes for the Sonata in a minor for keyboard. Javier Núñez takes a very fast tempo in the opening presto, but the largo is very slow, and Nuñez just avoids this movement's falling apart.

This is a very fine disc, and if you look for a recording of these three sonatas for viola da gamba, this is definitely one to consider.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Javier Núñez
Johanna Rose
Orquestra Barroca de Sevilla

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