C.P.E. Bach’s Organ Music

cover - CAN58016

C.P.E. BACH: Sonatas in g min., Bb, D, F & a min. / Jörg-Hannes Hahn, org / Cantate CAN58016

In the liner notes for this release, annotator Rainer Kahleyss states the following:

Even today the generation of Bach’s sons and their compositions still find too little recognition and reflection. In general, masters such as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) are looked upon as composers of the transitional period between the Baroque (Johann Sebastian Bach) and the Viennese Classic (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), which has a connotation of something incidental, of something unimportant.

Completely overlooked is the fact that it was exactly this generation (the composers of the early Vienna and Mannheim schools) which actually made possible the stylistic transition from the Baroque to the Classic with their works. Moreover, with the stylistic characteristics of the so-called Sturm und Drang period, they also brought forth some very independent developments.

This was certainly true in the late 1960s, when recordings of C.P.E. Bach’s music first began to appear, and probably true into the late 1980s, but today? When we have a voluminous number of recordings of C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard concerti on Bis and other labels, a huge number of his symphonies, violin and solo keyboard sonatas, cantatas, etc.? I find this impossible to believe. On the contrary, I would say that C.P.E. Bach has come to be as important a composer in his own right, and time, as his father was in his time. We now know how strong an influence he was on such composers as Haydn, Gluck, Mozart and even Beethoven. Now, of course, we must take into account the fact that there were two very different C.P.E. Bachs: the Berlin Bach, who had to write in a very conventional style in order to please Prince Frederick of Prussia, and the Hamburg Bach, whose innovative, often turbulent style is the one that most musicians today recognize as an influential genius, but anyone who at this point doesn’t know how great C.P.E. Bach was has to be living under a rock.

Here organist Jörg-Hannes Hahn, who studied with Werner Jacob and Marie-Claire Alain, gives us Vol. 1 of the solo organ works of this master. The odd thing is that he recorded Vol. 2 way back in 2005 (Cantate CAN58020), so why this Vol. 1 came out now, I have no idea. I’m not sure that Mr. Hahn does either. In the back of the booklet, we discover that this album was recorded in November of 2001 and in fact bears a copyright date of 2002, so maybe it’s a reissue.

Yet this is clearly an interesting and important album, presenting five sonatas which are written in the modernist style that C.P.E. Bach evolved after leaving Prince Frederick’s employ–except that these sonatas were written in the mid-1750s, when he was still employed by Friedrich…possibly for his own use. They have the same odd, stop-and-go pace of many of the symphonies and concerti, they are dramatic, and they are original and innovative. Just as interesting is the fact that Hahn plays here the Amalie Organ, built in 1755 (five years after his father’s death), an instrument with a much larger and richer sound than the wheezy little instrument his father was stuck with. Interestingly, Hahn plays the slow movements in a very tender, almost Romantic style. Was this acceptable in C.P.E. Bach’s time, or is this a post-Romantic view of these movements? Hard to tell. Historically informed research, being spotty and incomplete at best, can neither confirm nor deny the use of this style, but I’d say that it sounds right to me. It’s typically German: just remember how much German pianists and conductors slowed down the slow movement of Beethoven in decades past.

The main point I’d make is that Hahn’s energetic, full-blooded performances of these sonatas are very much in line with how we play Bach’s symphonies nowadays, thus I was extremely pleased by them. I was also struck by certain points in the music, such as around the three-minute mark in the third movement of the Sonata in g minor, where Bach clearly revels in dissonances that his father used sparingly and mostly in passing. He was clearly writing in a unique style that would have a tremendous bearing not just on the Sturm-und-Drang of his own era but in the Romantic music to come in the early 19th century. Indeed, the last sonata on this disc, ostensibly in A minor but constantly shuttling back and forth to the major, is the most dramatic and interesting on the record.

Despite my caveats about the slow movements, this is an interesting and vital release. I think all C.P.E. Bach aficionados should investigate it.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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