Notes and Editorial Reviews
C. P. E. BACH
Symphonies: in G,
Harpsichord Concerto in C,
Roger Norrington, cond; Florian Birsak (hpd);
Camerata Salzburg (period instruments)
PROFIL 8018 (68:50) Live: Darmstadt 12/20/2004
C. P. E. Bach’s posthumous reputation, immediately after his death and today, was compromised by the fact that his career and musical output are sharply divided into two very different styles: the simple, genteel, easy-to-assimilate music he wrote for the court of Frederick the Great (foursquare keyboard pieces and lots of flute music, most of it not very challenging, tailored for the adequate but not virtuosic flute-playing abilities of the King), and the wild, imaginative, harmonically and rhythmically daring music he wrote after he left Frederick’s court and moved to Hamburg. Indeed, he was generally referred to, even after his death, as “The Hamburg Bach,” and it was this phase of his creative life that won him the lifelong admiration of Haydn and Haydn’s most famous pupil, Beethoven. “No one is so varied in sentiment, so inexhaustible in new modulations, so harmonically fertile as he,” wrote Christian Friedrich Schubart during the composer’s lifetime, but a decade after his death he was almost completely forgotten. His scores sat on the shelves of his publisher, Breitkopf and Härtel, unsold for years. Beethoven finally wrote and asked them to send some of their extra scores to him for study.
I write all this by way of preface to a composer I only discovered in the early 1990s. For years I had heard some of the music of his brothers, and of course quite a bit of his happy-dandy flute and harpsichord style, so I was completely unprepared for what awaited me within the digital groove of Virgin Veritas 61182, a deceptively plain-packaged disc of C. P. E. symphonies by Gustav Leonhardt and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Enlightenment, indeed. I was totally blown away by this music, but sadly, it would be some years before I could find more. Eventually I was lucky enough to acquire other symphonies, and a marvelous organ concerto, conducted alternately by Harmut Haenschen with the C. P. E. Bach Kammerorchester (Berlin Classics) and Stefan Mai conducting the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Harmonia Mundi), Evelyn Garvey playing his incredible harpsichord fantasias (on Élan), and wonder of wonders, not one but several volumes of his wildly varied keyboard concertos played by a madman named Miklós Spányi and conducted by the equally incandescent Péter Szüts on BIS. And then there was his Magnificat in D (also conducted by Haenschen), on its own terms as brilliant as the one written by his famous father.
Of course, I listened to my existing recordings of the Symphonies Wq 182/1 and 182/6 before putting this CD on. The aesthetics involved are quite different. Harmut Haenschen (182/1) and Stefan Mai (182/6) sound much more Classical in their approach. Rhythmic accents are closer to Mozart and Haydn than they are to Handel or Vivaldi, as Norrington plays them here. This stylistic choice also extends to the solo keyboard-writing in the Concerto Wq 20, where the rhythms are more jutting and angular, particularly in the first movement, but also in the Adagio. This gives an entirely new slant to the music. The first movement of the Symphony Wq 182/1, for instance, seems to have a lot more counter-rhythmic accents underneath the surface here than in the Haenschen recording. If this surprised me, and it did, I quickly grew to like it. It’s simply a different way of looking at C. P. E. Bach and, considering how woefully under-recorded he is in comparison to his father, any alternative interpretation of his music is indeed welcome.
I must admit, however, that after hearing Spányi play the various concertos on fortepiano, I found the very weak, tinny sound of Florian Birsak’s harpsichord a little hard to take. This instrument is so mild that you’d never be able to hear it if the microphone hadn’t been shoved virtually under the player’s nose; it would be completely lost in a concert hall, particularly against the strong orchestral forces that C. P. E. wrote for his concertos. Mind you, on discs it’s okay. Birsak is a sensitive and highly musical player, and his performance is splendid in style and feeling. But there is no way it could carry in a concert hall of even medium size without help.
There’s a wonderful moment at the end of the second movement of this concerto that shows just how imaginative C. P. E. Bach was. The harpsichord resolves the harmony in the tonic of C, but the orchestra is still playing the dominant seventh, stubbornly hanging onto that B for dear life until
two seconds before the movement is totally over. I know this doesn’t sound like much, but think about it. This was pretty radical considering that this concerto was written
he moved to Hamburg, when he was still in the employ of Frederick.
The same is true of the Symphony Wq 173, yet despite its being much more Baroque in style and less harmonically daring, there is still much to admire. When he allowed his imagination free rein, even in this earlier period, he was able to create and sustain interesting development sections. Perhaps one reason why his music was so quickly forgotten after his death was that the melodic lines are not as memorable or attractive as those of Haydn or Mozart, not even as attractive as those of the technically skillful but less inspired Vanhal. Still, this particular symphony is a moment of comparative conventionality in an otherwise advanced and challenging program.
With the Symphony Wq 182/6 we are back in the eye of the hurricane, even though the first movement of this symphony is played at a much more moderate pace than 182/1. One interesting feature of Bach’s Hamburg symphonies is his linked movements. I can’t think of many other composers who were writing anything this innovative at that time. In this symphony, for instance, there is a dead stop at the end of the first movement, but it is on an unresolved chord; when the chord resolves, we learn that it is the beginning of the second movement. The second and third movements are not linked, but the quirky, edgy rhythms of the rapid 6/8 finale almost seem to put us in another musical world entirely.
The Symphony in E? covers a middle period, after his father’s death but before the flowering of his
Sturm und Drang
style. You can tell that he was already reaching towards something new and exciting; the orchestra contains oboes, horns, and bassoon, a rarity for 1757, and the rhythmic power of the first movement is almost explosive, leading into a gentler passage with stop-time rhythms. These two ideas, the headlong rhythmic rush of the swirling triplets and the playfulness of the soft, sparse moments, alternate throughout the first movement like the alternating mental images of a schizophrenic. The second-movement Larghetto gives us a mirror image of the first, pensive lyrical passages with occasional rhythmic outbursts. The finale is a whirling jig.
C. P. E. Bach’s music is so dense that I recommend listening to only one work at a time so as not to provide overload. Despite the fact that these recordings were made in a church, the acoustic is actually less reverberant than the recordings Haenschen made a decade ago. This, too, gives a different perspective to these works, an immediacy of presence that is almost tangible. Enthusiastically recommended. Roger, you have a winner here!
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley