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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): "Complete works for Keyboard & Violin"

Duo Belder Kimura

rec: July 20 - 23, 2016, Sherburn, North Yorkshire, St Hilda's Church
Resonus Classics - RES10192 (2 CDs) (© 2017) (2.12.25")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Arioso con Variazioni in A (Wq 79 / H 535)b; Fantasia in f sharp minor (Wq 80 / H 536)b; Sinfonia in D (Wq 74 / H 507)a; Sonata in C (Wq 73 / H 504)a; Sonata in c minor (Wq 78 / H 514)a; Sonata in D (Wq 71 / H 502)a; Sonata in d minor (Wq 72 / H 503)a; Sonata in F (Wq 75 / H 511)a; Sonata in b minor (Wq 76 / H 512)a; Sonata in B flat (Wq 77 / H 513)a

Pieter-Jan Belder, harpsichorda, fortepianob; Rie Kimura, violin

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is quite a fashionable composer these days. His music is frequently performed and regularly recorded. That does not mean that his entire oeuvre is well represented on disc. In particular his vocal music should receive more attention, and parts of his keyboard oeuvre are also rather underexposed. His chamber music seems to fare rather well. The best-known specimens of this part of his output are the three quartets which date from his last year. The flute sonatas are also often performed. Bach wrote a considerable number of works with a part for the transverse flute, which does not surprise, considering the instrument's popularity in his time, in particular among amateurs. If I am not mistaken, his sonatas for keyboard and violin are among the lesser-known fruits of his compositional activities. I can't remember having them ever heard in concerts, not even in recorded concerts on the radio. Over the years only a few recordings have crossed my path, and none of them included Bach's entire oeuvre for this scoring. From that perspective the set of two discs released by Resonus Classics is most welcome.

Emanuel's father, Johann Sebastian, was the first German composer who wrote sonatas for an obbligato harpsichord and violin (BWV 1014-1019). His son rated them very highly: "The 6 Clavier trios ... are among the finest works written by my dear late father. They still sound very good today, and they give me great pleasure, despite the fact that they are over 50 years old. There are certain Adagios in them whose cantabile qualities are unsurpassed to this day", he stated in a letter to Johann Nicolaus Forkel in 1774. It seems likely that he composed his own sonatas under his father's guidance. The Sonata in g minor (BWV 1020) was included in Schmieder's catalogue because it was thought to be from the father's pen. Some scholars tend to think that it was in fact written by CPE Bach. The liner-notes to the present recording don't discuss this, but it is probably the lack of certainty with regard to the identity of the composer that the performers decided to omit it.

It is notable that CPE Bach referred to the sonatas for keyboard and violin by his father as 'trios'. That is also how his own sonatas for this scoring are called. This was pretty common at the time: the two hands at the keyboard were counted as two parts. Remember that the quartets I referred to in the opening paragraph were scored for three instruments. In the case of some sonatas there is another reason: they were first conceived as trio sonatas for two melody instruments and basso continuo and revised in the 1740s to sonatas for keyboard and violin. Warwick Cole, in his liner-notes, mentions that Bach's own catalogue of his works includes a list of 46 pieces called 'trio'. In this list, conventional trio sonatas and works with an obbligato keyboard part are treated as equal.

The three sonatas Wq 71 - 73 (H 502 - 504) date from the mid-1740s. The Sonata in D is the earliest, and was revised in 1746. In its structure - that of the sonata da chiesa, in four movements - and its musical substance it shows strong similarity with Johann Sebastian's sonatas for keyboard and violin. The Sonata in d minor was originally conceived as a trio sonata for transverse flute, violin and basso continuo, and revised in 1747. The same goes for the Sonata in C, which was revised in 1745. The latter two are in three movements, but in different order. The second follows the fashion in Berlin in the mid-18th century: slow - fast - fast, whereas the last has the structure of a concerto: fast - slow - fast. These pieces are dominated by imitative counterpoint. That is different with the Sinfonia in D (Wq 74), whose title was later changed into sonata o vero sinfonia, which is largely homophonic: for most of the time the two instruments play in parallel motion, and there are also passages, in which the violin plays in unison with the right hand of the keyboard. This piece dates from 1754.

The two instruments are treated on equal footing in these works. That is also the case in the sonatas Wq 75 to 78 (H 511 - 514). Warwick states that they are conceived as a group: "Their coherence as a set is underlined by the fact that Bach's manuscript uses the same paper type for all four sonatas - in other words, that they were planned together rather than being assembled from disparate sources". They date from 1763 and were originally conceived for this scoring. Here the two instruments are also treated as equal, but the harpsichord has a more prominent role and often takes the lead. An example is the Sonata in b minor, the most dramatic sonata of the set. In the opening allegro moderato Bach makes use of the ritornello form of the Italian solo concerto. It opens with a solo episode of the keyboard which takes about 30 seconds; then the violin enters. Its interventions often have quite a dramatic effect.

Carl Philipp Emanuel stated that a performer had to feel the emotions which were expressed in the music. Otherwise it was impossible to communicate them to an audience. That ideal is particularly expressed in his own keyboard compositions. He was famous as an improviser, and one must assume that many of his keyboard works found their origin in such improvisations. This explains their often very personal character and their capricious texture. The Fantasia in f sharp minor can be considered the most eloquent reflection of the composer's ideals. It was originally written for keyboard solo and it is telling that it was called C.P.E. Bachs Empfindungen. It was his last keyboard work and is a sampling of emotions, which follow each other in quick succession and seemingly at random. Strong emotional outbursts, introverted episodes, sudden pauses - you just never know what is to come next. The key of F sharp minor was seldom used in previous eras and was characterised by Johann Mattheson as "misanthropic". The tempo indication points in the same direction: "sehr traurig und ganz langsam" (very sorrowful and very slow). Later Bach added a part for violin which adds little of any real substance, but rather gives colour and additional weight to some passages. It also serves to emphasize the dynamic contrasts so typical for this piece. To a certain extent, the Arioso in A, a series of variations, is almost its opposite, as it is technically rather modest and more 'conventional', as it were, in its content.

The choice of keyboard in CPE Bach's chamber music is a controversial subject. In his time, the harpsichord gradually lost its dominance. The clavichord had always played a major role in domestic music making in the 17th and early 18th centuries, but the instruments constructed in Emanuel's time were tailor-made to express the deep emotions of many compositions of the Empfindsamkeit. No wonder it was Emanuel's favourite instrument. Other instruments of the time were the tangent piano and the fortepiano. As most of the music included here dates from the time that the latter instrument had not established itself yet, the performers have opted for the harpsichord, which seems the right decision. In the Fantasia and the Arioso, Pieter-Jan Belder plays a fortepiano, which is a copy of a Walter piano of 1795. This must be the most frequently-copied fortepiano of all times, but often it is not the most suitable. Considering that the Fantasia dates from 1787, this choice is probably not too bad. However, I wonder if CPE Bach knew Walter's pianos. He may well have been more acquainted with Silbermann fortepianos. However, as the clavichord was his favourite instrument, the Fantasia, one of his most personal creations, is often played at this instrument. Warwick states that because of its relative lack of power, it is unsuitable for chamber music. Some performers think otherwise. Only recently I reviewed a recording of chamber music by composers at the court of Frederick the Great, including CPE Bach, and a sonata for flute and keyboard by Johann Gottfried Müthel was performed with a clavichord. Earlier I reviewed a disc with music by members of the Bach family, in which the flute was also supported by a clavichord. It would be most interesting to try to perform the Fantasia in its version with violin on the clavichord. I feel that the fortepiano - and especially this one - is not the ideal instrument to do justice to this piece. In the Arioso I would also prefer a different keyboard, such as the tangent piano.

Setting all those considerations apart, I have nothing but praise for the interpretations by Pieter-Jan Belder and Rie Kimura, who are perfect partners in this repertoire. Belder has already shown his credentials in CPE Bach with is recording of the complete Sonaten für Kenner und Liebhaber, and here his performances once again bear witness to his insight into the world of Emanuel Bach. Rie Kimura produces a lovely tone, which blends perfectly with the keyboard, but there is no lack of drama in her performances either. The contrasts which regularly manifest themselves in these sonatas, come off well. The tempi are well chosen. The only issue may be that sometimes the balance slightly favours the violin. However, that may also something one has to get used to.

All in all, this is a substantial addition to the discography of CPE Bach's oeuvre.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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