Fascinating CPE Bach Pieces on New CD


C.P.E. BACH: Der Frühling. Sinfonia in A min. for 2 Violins & Basso Continuo. 3 Arias for Tenor, WQ 211. Trio Sonata in B-flat for 2 Violins & Basso Continuo. Fürsten Sind am Lebensziele, WQ 214. Selma, WQ 236. Sonatina in D min., WQ 104 / Café Zimmermann; Rupert Charlesworth, tenor / Alpha 257

The astonishing rise of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in my own lifetime from “one of Bach’s sons” to his present status as one of the most creative and influential of 18th-century composers has been, for me at least, extremely gratifying. I can still remember when his own Magnificat in D was first issued on a recording in the early 1970s; critics were astonished to discover a voice that was equally as masterful as his father but one that struck out on an entirely new path of melodic and harmonic invention. Mind you, C.P.E. Bach was always respectful of his father. When he was one of the court composers for Frederick the Great in Prussia, he had his father come and visit the court, following which—as a gift for the King—J.S. Bach wrote his Musical Offering. Shortly after his father’s death, both he and his older brother Wilhelm Friedemann poured their own money into the publication of their father’s Art of Fugue, which did so poorly that it barely sold 30 copies in three years. And much later, when he was settled in Hamburg, he mounted a performance of part of his father’s Mass in B Minor. Yet there was no question, once he left Friedrich’s service, that his individuality as a composer really blossomed.

The performances on this disc suffer to some degree from the cramped, whining sound of straight tone violins, but for the most part Café Zimmermann plays with great brio and, thank goodness, dynamics and lyricism. And even from the very first piece, Der Fühling, one is immediately aware of C.P.E. Bach’s genius. What starts out like a conventional Classical-era aria eventually morphs into a highly diverse and wholly unpredictable work in which the harmonies slip-slide up, down and sideways, the melodic line breaks up into little cells, and keeps going in directions entirely different from what the listener expects. This was the kind of genius that one also hears in his symphonies, which have to be among the most precious and unusual works of the entire Classical era. Even Mozart admired “the great Bach’s” genius, though he was personal friends with his younger brother Johann Christian Bach. Ironically, no biographical information is provided in the booklet on the very fine tenor Rupert Charlesworth. I had to go online to discover that he is a British tenor who graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, was a 2011 Academy Laureate of the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, and won both First Prize and Audience Prize at the 2013 Handel Singing Competition.

It is in the instrumental Sinfonia and the trio sonata that the inherent weakness and false musicality of the edgy-straight-tone style manifests itself most. Here, the ugly sounds of bows scraping strings without any mercy for the poor listener recall what some 18th-century music critics complained of, that some of the poorer orchestras could not be listened to up close because the scrape of bows on strings was too abrasive for the listener to tolerate, but that they sounded a little better when one heard them from a distance. So you see, dear reader, this is what these “straight-tone” people are trying to accomplish: they want to make their listeners feel uncomfortable and hate the sound of their instruments because that’s what is “authentic” to them. Real, authentic repulsion towards classical music.

That being said, the music itself is interesting and would certainly have benefited from a less strictly dogmatic application of these aesthetics. Even in the most formally conventional movements, Bach had his own peculiar musical vocabulary, and in such moments as the last movement one hears his effective use of dramatic contrast between a hard, strict sort of march beat and more lyrical episodes in between. A sudden decelerando in the middle is yet another unexpected moment, which repeats itself near the end.

In the Three Arias, there are more delightful surprises from Bach, although in these pieces I came to realize that Charlesworth, for all his vocal prowess, is an essentially one-dimensional and uninteresting interpreter. Ironically, the Trio Sonata in B-flat only has a few features of interest or individuality about it, particularly in the second movement.

Of the remaining pieces on this disc, pride of place goes to the brief cantata Selma, set to a poem by Johann Heinrich Voss. This, according to the notes, started out as a song with piano. Perhaps the strangest thing about Selma is that the music stops right in the middle of nowhere. Strange indeed. The final Keyboard Sonatina in D minor is one of Bach’s real gems, a delightful piece with unusual touches but not too outré for the average listener. Here, at least, Café Zimmermann modifies its bow pressure on the strings to produce an almost lovely sound, and the interplay of the winds (two flutes and two horns) is carefully crafted. An excellent piece, indeed…almost as great as some of his symphonies!

Although this disc is a bit of a mixed bag, I give it an eventual one thumb up, primarily for the high quality of most of the works presented here but also for the excellent performance style in the two cantatas and the Sonatina.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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