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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): "Selected Fortepiano Works"

Sharona Joshua, fortepiano

rec: August 9 - 11, 2004, Toddington, St Andrew's Church
Rubato Records - RRL A1104U (© 2006) (75'09")

Fantasia in E flat (Wq 58,6 / H 277) [4]; Rondo in B flat (Wq 58,5 / H 267) [4]; Rondo in c minor (Wq 59,4 / H 283) [5]; Rondo in F (Wq 57,5 / H 266) [3]; Sonata in g minor (Wq 65,17 / H 47); Sonata in f minor (Wq 63,6 / H 75) [2]; Sonata in C (Wq 65,36 / H 157); Sonata in b minor (Wq 49,6 / H 36) [1]

(Sources: [1] Sei sonate per cembalo, 1744 ('Württembergische Sonaten'); [2] 18 Probestücke in 6 Sonaten, in: Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen, 1753; [3] Clavier-Sonaten nebst einigen Rondos … für Kenner und Liebhaber, III, 1781; [4] Clavier-Sonaten und freye Fantasien nebst einigen Rondos … für Kenner und Liebhaber, IV, 1783; [5] Clavier-Sonaten und freye Fantasien nebst einigen Rondos … für Kenner und Liebhaber, V, 1785)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was one of the most important and most influential composers of the 18th century. He wrote music in all genres – with the exception of opera – but he was first and foremost a keyboard player and his own compositions for the keyboard belong to the most innovative of his time.

Two aspects of his keyboard style are especially important. First of all Carl Philipp Emanuel emphasized the importance of emotion, not just the emotion in the music, but also the emotion of the performer. In his treatise Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen of 1753 he wrote: "A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved. He must necessarily feel all of the affects that he hopes to arouse in his audience, for the revealing of his own humour will stimulate a like humour in the listener". This shows a fundamental change in the attitude towards emotion from the era of which his father was a representative. Whereas at that time performers were taught to keep the upper part of the body still while playing and to show no emotion at all, Emanuel expressed his own feelings very clearly while playing, as the well-known report by the English journalist Charles Burney testifies.

The emotion he advocated is all too clear in his own music. His compositions are characterised by sudden stops and starts, rhetorical flourishes and sudden harmonic sideslips. This shouldn't give the impression his compositions lack any coherence. It is in the above-mentioned treatise again that Bach himself emphasized that fantasizing isn't the same as aimless wandering, and that all gestures and modulations should be under strict control of the intellect. Here we see Bach as a representative, not only of the hypersensitive Empfindsamkeit, but also of the Enlightenment and its rationalism.

The second aspect – closely linked to the former – is the importance of improvisation. There is little doubt that many of Bach's keyboard works find their origin in his own improvisations. He himself was famous as an improviser, and it is to hear him in this capacity that Charles Burney visited him in Hamburg. His improvisatorial skills are also the explanation for the seemingly irregular character of many of his keyboard works. Even in pieces written for others – like the Württembergische Sonaten, written for his pupil, Duke Karl Eugen von Württemberg – his highly personal style comes to the fore.

One of the subjects of debate as far as the interpretation is concerned is the choice of instrument. The Württembergische Sonaten were specifically written for the harpsichord. They date from the early 1740s and at that time the harpsichord was still the dominant keyboard instrument. Bach personally had a strong preference for the clavichord, which is a very intimate instrument and allows the player to make dynamic contrasts which on the harpsichord can only be suggested through agogic. The fortepiano was starting to become fashionable during the 1760s, and it is known that fortepianos of the organ maker Gottfried Silbermann were purchased for the court in Berlin, where Bach worked until 1768. But it is very unlikely Bach's keyboard works written before the mid-1770s were really meant to be played on the fortepiano.

From this perspective the choice of instrument on this recording - a fortepiano built Barlow, after Johann Schantz, 1795 - is hard to understand. All sonatas - about three quarter of the programme - date from before the mid-1770s and should better be played on the harpsichord or the clavichord. But even in the case of the three Rondos and the Fantasia - written in the late 1770s or early 1780s - a fortepiano by Schanz from 1795 is a rather inappropriate instrument. It seems very likely the fortepianos Emanuel knew were mostly those made by Silbermann, and these are quite different from the Schanz. The fortepiano was developing fast during the last decades of the 18th century, and there are clear differences between the fortepianos of the early 1770s and the 1790s.

One of the main problems of the instrument used here is that it has more sustain than earlier instruments. As a result the sudden pauses which frequently appear in Bach's works tend to lose their effect. The reverberation of the church where this recording took place only increases this problem. The sustain also makes fast scales get a bit muddy, like in the Fantasia in E flat. Sometimes Sharona Joshua seems to hold down in using the dynamic possibilities of the instrument – mostly with good reason, for instance in the Sonata in g minor which opens the programme – but as a result her performance sounds like a piece by Mozart or Haydn played on a modern concert grand. Since the instrument is too 'modern' the innovative character of Bach's music isn't fully revealed.

In addition I am not impressed by Sharona Joshua's playing. Often I found her performance outright boring and lacking in expression. I did't notice much Affekt in the middle movement of the Sonata in f minor, with the character indication of 'adagio affetuoso e sostenuto'. The last movement wasn't very moving as well and the Rondo in B flat is really flat, in my opinion.
I also can't help feeling that Ms Joshua is playing the fortepiano with a modern piano technique. The differences in colour which are so characteristic of the fortepiano are hardly explored.

To sum up: an interesting programme has been spoilt by the wrong choice of instrument and an interpretation which doesn't explore the emotional depth of Carl Philipp Emanuel's keyboard works.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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