CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH: Six Sinfonias for String Orchestra, W. 182 – The Vivaldi Project/ John Hsu – Centaur CRC 3176 [Distr. by Naxos], 64:28 ***1/2:
These so-called Hamburg Symphonies (1773) date from Bach’s years as musical director of the city of Hamburg, a role he took over from his godfather, Georg Philipp Telemann. As music director, Bach was able, among other projects, to produce more choral music than when he worked for Frederick the Great back in Berlin. One such piece was the oratorio Die Aufstehung Jesu (The Resurrection of Jesus), which Baron Gottfried van Swieten, later Haydn’s collaborator on the oratorios The Creation and The Seasons, introduced in Vienna to great fanfare. There’s a further connection with C. P. E. Bach: as Austrian ambassador to the court of Frederick the Great, Baron van Swieten commissioned the increasingly famous composer to write the six Hamburg Symphonies for performance in Vienna.
Bach responded with some of his most audacious music to date—this from a composer known for musical eccentricities, including what some critics consider the most daring harmonic language before Schubert. Fittingly, though he may be stretching the point a bit, conductor John Hsu in his informative notes to this recording connects Bach’s often demanding music to the Vivaldi Project’s namesake: “CPE called upon virtuoso figurations developed and established by Vivaldi in his violin concertos. They include figurations based on rapid scales, arpeggios, multiple stops, and other technical challenges, especially those that are in the upper range of the violins.” It’s pretty arresting to hear an entire violin section grinding away at an extended series of double stops, but that’s pretty standard fare in these arresting symphonies.
All these works are relatively short as Classical symphonies go, the longest clocking in at just over twelve minutes. Following earlier symphonic practice, they’re all three-movement works with the slow-fast-slow pattern of the Italian sinfonia. And like that earlier form, the movements follow one another attaca, which allows Bach to maximize the emotional contrasts between movements. A good example is Sinfonia No. 3 in C Major, which kicks off the disc. As with most of these symphonies, the first movement is athletic, with bounding scale passages for the violins and only brief respite in a halting, more lyrical second subject. By way of contrast, the second movement is a brooding Adagio near tragic in its intensity. Contrast again: the finale is a lively dance-based movement which John Hsu identifies as a bourée. In his notes Hsu invokes other Baroque forms related to the dance—gigue and sarabande—thus emphasizing Bach’s status as a transitional figure.
More than once, Hsu invokes the theater when writing about these symphonies—curious, perhaps, given that unlike his brother Johann Christian, CPE didn’t write for the stage. And yet the Empfindsamer Stil (“the sensitive or emotional style”) of which CPE was the most famous proponent is dramatic, even theatrical, in its emotive outbursts and radical emotional contrasts. That’s especially true of Sinfonia No. 5 in B Minor, whose slowish (Allegretto) first movement pits a quiet swooning opening figure in the violins against later growling, swooping passages, the whole reminding Hsu of “an operatic scene in which a gentle and pleading first singer is being rebuffed by a stern second singer. . . .” Maybe predictably, the second movement is a graceful and tender song without all the emotional freight of the first. More fiery athleticism in the Presto finale, which starts with two loud rugged chords in the violins.
And so it goes in these appealingly eccentric little symphonies, which every lover of the Classical-era symphony should have in his or her collection. (Ditto the Four Orchestral Symphonies Wq. 183, by the way.) CPE may have had no direct imitators, but his influence on the symphony stretched from Mozart and Haydn to Beethoven and beyond. These performances by the D.C.-based Vivaldi Project under Hsu certainly capture the volatile spirit of Bach and don’t shy away from fast tempi. I’m not sure whether the note on the back cover of the CD is bragging or complaining, but it mentions that these performances were “Recorded live (and unedited). . . .” There is indeed a bit of roughness here and there—a lack of coordination in some of the playing in Symphony No. 4 in A Major and rhythmic variability and unsteadiness here and there—but these are more than acceptable performances given the obvious emotional involvement of the players. The sound, coming from the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, is less appealing, the resonance imparting some hardness, or maybe chilliness, to the string sound. It’s not a great distraction, though, and neither are the usual coughs and shuffling from the audience.
If you prefer modern-instrument performances, there’s a good budget alternative on Naxos from Christian Benda and his fine Capella Istropolitana. The playing is more refined, but there’s also an air of caution or at least restraint compared with the performances from the Vivaldi Project, so if you can live with certain slight imperfections, their original-instruments version will provide some compensatory musical thrills.
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