C.P.E. BACH: Sonatas & Rondos – Marc-Andre Hamelin – Hyperion 68381 (two cds; 63:32, 77;29) [distr. by PIAS]; *****
C.P.E. & W.F. BACH: Keyboard Sonatas – David Murray – MSR 1716 11/21 – 68:32 [distr. by PIAS] ****
As we look out the window, alone on a dark and rainy evening, bored and restless, we might imagine that somewhere else human happiness flourishes. Let’s represent that as a gathering of like-minded friends. Sparkling wit and sharp insights are in ample supply, along with anecdotes both surprising and instructive.
Such a scene may or may not be happening at a fire-lit pub somewhere in your town, but we can at least find the musical equivalent in the best music of the second half of the 18th century. This period is ambiguously called the Classical period (in contradistinction to the preceding Baroque and the subsequent Romantic era). Sometimes it is called the Galant or, for the Germans, Empfindsamer Stil. None of these terms work perfectly. It could more simply and with only slight exaggeration be called The Age of Bach. That is as long as we made it clear we were talking about the second son of the great J.S. Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel. How he came to birth this new style is one of the great stories in European Cultural History, some of which is shared in the excellent liner notes accompanying the two recent releases under review here. It is worth starting with the Great Bach himself.
At no point during his career was J.S Bach acknowledged as the greatest of composers. (arguably his position today). That accolade would more likely have been bestowed on his rival Handel. Instead, Bach was generally deemed an unrivaled virtuoso on keyboard instruments and a man who knew a lot about organs. From the scant evidence, we might say that he estimated himself mostly as a pedagog. He was at least that, as well as a Cantor, a court composer, a director of amateur ensembles, even a teacher of Latin. He had many students and some of the most prominent were members of his own family (including his second wife Anna Magdalen).
The recordings at hand allow us a chance to consider two such students, his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann (henceforth W.F.) and his second son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (C.P.E)
As the first son, W.F. was his father’s main subject. Having had to learn the hard way as a youth through arduous and eye-destroying self-study, Bach wanted to perfect a more efficient and reliable method of instruction to bring his son up to the lofty standards that he himself had attained by early adulthood. No other teacher was allowed to instruct this first charge, and by all accounts, the effort was rewarded; in no time at all, Bach senior had a son who could perform admirably on all keyboard instruments and who understood the basics of voice leading and composition.
While leaning heavily over the promising Wilhelm, Bach had to keep an eye on the mischief going on at the other starter keyboard. It was little Carl, fooling around. This son was just as bright but far less tractable. Although Bach would eventually take the younger son in hand and he, too, would get a complete education, it was not the priority. W.F. was to be the organist, and so it turned out. A high point in his tuition might be the day that his father dedicated one of the great masterpieces of the 18th century to him: the trio sonatas BWV 525-530 (best heard in small chamber arrangements). These towering works would be Wilhelm’s calling card. He would go out into the world and become the most prominent organist, an improviser and composer of renown like his pops.
Still, things didn’t work out as well as they might have. After a period of studying law, W.F. did in fact get a job as an organist in Dresden and was briefly held in high esteem. However, then a cantankerous nature (like his father’s) and an unwillingness to adapt his music to the taste of the times put him at odds with the musical establishment. Another job in Halle was the last respectable position he had. After that, he scraped by with a couple of students. His marriage yielded just one surviving offspring.That most promising branch of the Bach family dried up and fell off the tree. Remnants of his daughter’s family made their way over to Oklahoma and there the trail ends.
Most of W.F.’s music disappeared too. This is a pity because it is of the highest quality. Indeed, in terms of craft it hews closely to his father’s strict style, exhibiting a mastery of counterpoint and a perfectly judged balance between voices. And yet at the same time, this more conservative style also has moved away from the stricter “learned” techniques; It is a hybrid of the incipient Galant and the older Baroque: sober, lyrical and rhetorically understated by the standards of the times and especially by comparison with his younger brother Carl Philipp Emanuel.
David Murray, a Professor of Music at Georgia Southern University specializes in pre-classical composers. His most recent recording for MSR features his continued exploration of the well-known C.P.E. Bach sonatas but also includes an unpublished work by W.F., of which there is but one manuscript. At almost a quarter of an hour, this Sonatas goes by the unromantic name of FK NV8, which belies its outstanding quality. The opening poco allegro features a lovely cantabile melody played over rocking arpeggios. It returns after an expository interlude in the left hand and again with increased tenderness in the upper register. Wisely, he places this after the 3 Wurtenburg Sonatas where it stands not as a make-weight but rather a sober standard by which the younger brother’s brilliant originality can be judged by the old fashioned measures of contrapuntal craft.
David Murray, a scholar as well as performer, is well -suited for this repertoire. The pianist provides his own notes, which are a good introduction to the three sonatas by C.P.E Bach but not enough is explained about the strange circumstances of the long forgotten Wilhelm Friedemann piece. How and where was it found–at a Goodwill store in Oklahoma? As for the playing, one can only applaud. Murray shows a perfect poise in the flashy passages — and there are some passages that could pass for Scarlatti. There is a fine feeling for the polyphonic juggling of voices in both pieces. Stylistically, Murray offers something of a contrast to the recent Hyperion double issue by Marc Andre- Hamelin, preferring moderate tempos and avoiding the sharp articulation for which the Canadian virtuoso is known. MSR has done a good job with this important issue. I would certainly be keen on further digging in the archives to unearth more pieces by the W.F., perhaps even a program focusing on this most neglected of the Bach sons.
The Hyperion issue of C.P.E Bach is graced with a cover photograph of nautilus shell and feather, a pseudo still life which serves as well as any portal into the aesthetic of the 18th century. This is music of supreme refinement, in which the transcendental world has given way to purely earthly standards of beauty. There was no more worldly place than the Court of King Frederick the Great, where C.P.E spent the formative decades of his professional career. Here he had the best models to learn from and compete against, but even here, he was no conformist. He continued to explore new ideas, surprising twists and turns, and rule-breaking dissonances. It was as if he were shaping his musical language on the tart, ironic conversation of the most flippant philosophes that were gathered at Sans Souci. In fact, conversation and repartee seem to be at the heart of this music. Those who love the music of Haydn will find similar qualities here. The tune-smithery is at no less a level, and perhaps the feeling for aching melodies in the largos are even better in this Bach than in the “Papa” Haydn who followed him.
The range of cleverness found in C.P.E.’s vast output is well-represented on these two disc. There are character pieces– L’Herrmann, L’Aly Rupalich–presumably an homage to a patron or student, rondos, four sonatas, and other miscellaneous works. It is a well-chosen sample of a vast output of over 400 pieces for keyboard instruments. Does one become overwhelmed with cleverness in a recital of this sort? This performer does his best to prevent that. There is enough variety of mood and texture to keep one engaged. Hamelin is an unsurpassed technician; one of the best in the super-hard repertoire of Medtner, Alkan and the like. I was worried that his hallmark velocity and crisp playing could overwhelm the ears (which frankly was the case in some of his Haydn recordings) but that was not the case here.
“He is the father and we are the children. Anybody who knows anything at all learned it from him.”
— Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (about C.P.E Bach)
This is an all time great tribute, but how true is it? As the saying goes–not every dog knows his own father. A musical genetic test would probably show that Mozart’s musical ancestry ran through the “London” Bach with a little Myslivecek mixed in. It is Haydn, especially in his piano sonatas that shows the most direct connection to Bach. C.P.E
Hamelin has of course an embarrassment of excess prowess when it comes to the technical demands of these pieces, but artistically they most certainly have his full attention. He finds something to communicate in every one. He is in no hurry to get through the program. He revels in the many little pauses, rhetorical flourishes, witty asides and pratfalls in which this music abounds. If I could listen to his playing with one other person in history, it would be Haydn, who would get all of the jokes. (Like Mozart, Haydn also credited the older master with teaching him a thing or two about how to write a sonata.)
This might be the most exciting recording of C.P.E Bach since the memorable Deutsche Grammophon recording of Pletnev of 2002. I went back to that recording to make comparisons. The earlier recording highlighted the improvisatory character of this composer. The music sounds just a bit stranger. It is harder to say anything about this recital because there is more disparate material. All the ingredients of the Classical style are here, but it feels like nothing has been assembled in its final form. The Rondos and Sonatas are just as unpredictable as the short character pieces. In short, it is a laboratory of musical exploration. It can dazzle, charm and provoke. And just a few moments of the slower movements achieve a Mozartian grace. As always the Hyperion sound is unsurpassed. The sound stage is a perfect size for this most elegant of chamber music.