CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH, Vol. 2 = Sinfonia No. 3 in C Major, Wq. 182/3; Cello Concerto No. 3 in B-Flat Major, Wq. 171; Sinfonia in e, Wq. 178; Piccolo Cello Sonata in D Major, Wq. 137; Harpsichord Concerto in d, Wq. 17 ‒ Ophélie Gaillard, cello and musical dir. / Francesco Corti, harpsichord / Pulcinella Orch. ‒ Aparté AP118 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS]; 81:00 (4/1/16) ***1/2:
Spirited Bach playing, though somewhat too brusque for my taste. But the cello sonata is worth the price of the disc.
Throughout the nineteenth century and a good chunk of the twentieth, the sons of J. S. Bach were lumped together by musicians and considered so far inferior to their father that little of their music visited a music stand. If any of the sons had caché, it was Bach’s youngest, Johann Christian, thanks to his association with the adolescent Mozart. But with the rise of historically informed performance practice back in the ‘60s, groups such as Collegium Aureum and Concentus Musicus started to perform and commit to disc the long-unplayed orchestral works of C. P. E. Bach. The choral music and instrumental music soon made their way to disc as well, and today it’s hard to imagine his greatness went unappreciated for so along.
I’m sorry to report that I missed the well-received first volume in Ophélie Gaillard’s series of C. P. E. Bach recordings. However, I’m glad to have heard Volume 2 because it offers an especially well-chosen sampling of Bach’s music, including two excellent concertos and two equally fine symphonies. But what makes the disc special is the inclusion of the Sonata for Piccolo Cello, originally composed for viola da gamba but here performed on the violoncello piccolo, an instrument favored by C. P. E.’s dad. It’s an marvelous work, with an absolutely winning last movement, perhaps the most memorable in any of Bach’s chamber works, and it sounds just right on Gaillard’s chosen instrument, and in her excellent reading of it.
The sonata has all the earmarks of Bach’s approach to what is known as empfindsamer Stil—“the sensitive style,” which aimed to express the range of human emotions. So in the first movement, we have a tender, longing Adagio; it’s followed by a vigorous Allegro di molto, music of pomp and circumstance. But as I said earlier, the finest movement is the last, an Arioso built on a lovely melody that does indeed allow the cello to sing like any opera star.
If the rest of the disc is not quite as special to me, that’s because the recorded sound is less than ideal and because the program includes two familiar symphonies about which I have ingrained ideas that depart from Gaillard’s. The first (Wq. 182/3)—one of six symphonies commissioned by Haydn’s patron Baron van Swieten and composed in Hamburg in 1773—has an explosive first movement, a pining slow movement in the minor key, and a rather jolly finale. Quite a range of emotions, as usual with this composer. The other symphony (Wq. 178), composed in Berlin in 1756, was praised by Bach’s contemporary the opera composer Johann Hasse as perhaps the finest symphony he knew. Gaillard and company play the Berlin version, scored for strings alone, though the piece is most often heard in the reworking for winds and strings from Bach’s Hamburg years. Dark-hued and unsettled except for a more relaxed Andante moderato, this is one of the earliest and most powerful expressions of the Sturm und Drang movement in music. The performances by Gaillard and her small band of players are passionate and virtuosic but just a bit too driven for my tastes, though part of the problem is the recording, which seems too forward, and a touch too brash for me. The sound seems somewhat bass-heavy as well, but maybe that’s because the recording balance favors the Pulcinella Orchestra’s small but powerful bass section. It’s surprising to learn that the recording was set down in a Paris church since there’s nothing churchly about the acoustic as captured by the sound engineers.
The approach to the two concertos seems more relaxed, and these pieces add real value to the program, especially since the harpsichord concerto has been rarely recorded. In fact, these are both quite sympathetic performances. Again, I wish the recording balance, especially of the soloists, wasn’t so forward, but the expressive playing mostly compensates.
I hesitate to raise the objections I have, because for those wanting to explore C. P. E. Bach, this varied program is an excellent starting point, suggesting the impressive range of Bach’s instrumental music. So if you can, sample this well-filled disc. The performances and sound may well be to your liking; the music certainly will be.