CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH: Berlin Symphonies, Wq. 174, 175, 178, 179, 180, and 181 – Orch. de Chambre de Lausanne / Christian Zacharias – MD&G

by | Mar 4, 2014 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH: Berlin Symphonies, Wq. 174, 175, 178, 179, 180, and 181 – Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne / Christian Zacharias – Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm multichannel SACD MDG 940 1824-6 (2+2+2) [Distr. by E1], 68:49 (1/21/14) ****:

The greatest of Johann Sebastian’s composing sons, C. P. E. Bach has been on the rise since the dawn of the authentic-instruments movement. An original-instruments group gave me my first taste of C. P. E.’s music back in the early ‘70s. The instrumentalists didn’t quite know how to handle their instruments, especially those coils of brass tubing known as natural horns, and the recording was distant and not very stereo, but I recall that I was instantly struck by the eccentric originality of the music and became an immediate fan. Since then, of course, performers have grown much more adept at playing those old instruments, and CPE Bach’s star is still on the ascent though, regrettably, you don’t hear him very often in live performance.

In his own day, Bach was a much sought-after and admired figure; unlike some of his less lucky brothers, he didn’t have employment worries, landing his first job at the court of Frederick of Prussia, soon to be Frederick the Great, a position he held for thirty years. His duties, which included turning out concerti and solos for his flute-playing employer and accompanying him on keyboard, weren’t always satisfactory, but the music that Bach produced in his Berlin years established his reputation. While Bach created reams of music for keyboard and concerti for a variety of instruments, his Berlin years saw the production of only eight symphonies; the six on the current CD, written between 1755 and 1762, are usually grouped under the rubric “Berlin Symphonies.” Like the other two symphonies he wrote while in Berlin, they were originally scored for strings alone, but later, after he had moved on to Hamburg, CPE Bach added winds to the scoring of the six, and that’s the version usually performed today.

The addition of winds adds a good deal of character to the pieces and doesn’t diminish their energy or eccentricity: the flying arpeggios, the rapid shifts in dynamics, the growling bass figures. The heart of each symphony is a slow movement often in the minor key and with a sighing, melancholy air about it that’s a hallmark of the empfindsamer Stil, with its heavy emphasis on reflecting genuine human emotions. In contrast, the finales are usually upbeat, dancing affairs; while only the last movement of Wq 175 is marked Tempo di Menuetto, dance rhythms predominate in the finales.

Bach apparently inherited the three-movement symphony format from his predecessor at the court in Berlin, Carl Heinrich Graun; Bach’s innovation was to elide the three movements, and the sense of both continuity and change as we segue from movement to movement adds to the drama of these highly dramatic pieces. It strikes me that Mozart’s three-movement Symphony No. 32, designated by the composer as “in the Italian style,” is probably more in the C. P. E. Bach style than the Italian.

I’m surprised to learn that this new disc from pianist-conductor Christian Zacharias and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra is one of only three readily available recordings of the Berlin Symphonies; only one of those, with Ludger Rémy and Les Amis de Philippe (CPO), uses original instruments. I haven’t heard that recording, but I have heard the direct competition, from Hartmut Haenschen and the C. P. E. Bach Chamber Orchestra  on Berlin Classics. These are very good performances, featuring snappy rhythms and fine playing from the orchestra, but Haenchen has a tendency to overuse rubato. And good as the playing is, that from the Lausanne orchestra is better; there’s more sparkle to it and more wit. The horns especially make much more of an impact on the new recording, the sound of which is big, wide, and handsome—a trifle soft-grained, perhaps, but with a real sense of the hall (Métropole in Lausanne). If you’re looking for a recording of the Berlin Symphonies (and everyone with an interest in the development of the symphony should have at least one), this is the recording to get.

—Lee Passarella

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