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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1741-1788) Sonata in D. minor, Wq.51/4 (1758) [11:12]
Sonata in F sharp minor, Wq. 52/4 (1744) [11:45]
Sonata in A major, Wq. 55/4 (1765) [13:25]
Rondo in D minor, Wq. 61/4 (1787) [4:07]
Sonata in C major, Wq. 65/47 (1775) [7:53]
Rondo in B flat major, Wq. 58/5 (1783) [4:52]
Sonata in E major, Wq. 65/29 (1755) [7:30]
Cantabile in B minor, from Sonata, Wq. 55/3 (1779) [3:04]
Christopher Hinterhuber (piano)
rec. 27 February-1 March 2004, Phoenix Studio, Budapest.
NAXOS 8.557450 [63:46]
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Charles Burney visited C.P.E. Bach in Hamburg in October 1772, publishing his account of the encounter in The Present State of Music in Germany, the Netherlands, and United Provinces in the following year. He observed that "Hamburg is not, at present, possessed of any musical professor of great eminence, except M. Carl Philip Emanuel Bach; but he is a legion!" For Burney, although he admired Bach's "vocal and miscellaneous compositions", Bach's genius was most evident in "his productions for his own instruments, the clavichord, and piano forte, in which he stands unrivalled". Visiting Bach at his home, Burney was overjoyed when Bach "was so obliging as to sit down to his Silbermann clavichord, and favourite instrument, upon which he played three or four of his choicest and most difficult compositions, with the delicacy, precision, and spirit, for which he is so justly celebrated among his countrymen. In the pathetic and slow movements, whenever he had a long note to express, he absolutely contrived to produce, from his instrument, a cry of sorrow and complaint, such as can only be effected upon the clavichord, and perhaps by himself". The experience confirmed Burney - no bad judge - that Bach was "one of the greatest composers that ever existed, for keyed instruments".

He doesn't hold quite such a position in modern times. No doubt some of C.P.E. Bach's contemporary fame owed something to his own skills, as the passage from Burney implies. But his works for keyboard are, in themselves, fascinating and often remarkable. He was the author of the Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments (1753-62), one of the most important musical treatises of the eighteenth century. He had, in short, thought long and hard about the writing and playing of keyboard instruments, drawing on his own very extensive experience, the instruction he had received from his father and his observation and study of the playing and compositions of others. His own keyboard sonatas can, in one light, be viewed as a kind of bridge between his father, J. S. Bach and Haydn. Certainly there are places - particularly in the early works - where the influence of his father is readily apparent and there are others where, as he developed the empfindsamer Stil (the "highly-sensitive style"), one hears anticipations of the keyboard writing of Haydn (and beyond). The danger in viewing his work in this light is, however, that we don't pay sufficient attention to the music itself, rather than to where it has come from or is going to, stylistically speaking.

One problem for the modern performer/listener is that Bach was himself devoted to the clavichord, which was very much his preferred instrument in the keyboard family. The intimacy of the instrument, its capacity for the production of distinctively 'personal' sounds, perhaps encouraged the experimental and subjective sides of Bach's personality. Much of his writing for the keyboard eschews strict adherence to the principles of classical regularity; simple repetitions are often avoided, there is a fascination with surprising and strongly characterised sonorities. How adequately the modern piano can do justice to these must be a doubtful matter. Miklós Spányi has recorded, for BIS, a long series of works for the solo keyboard, played on a clavichord; he plays the music with great love and understanding, with a quasi-improvisatory intimacy and a rich palette of tone colours. This would, I think, be my preferred way of hearing this music. But we needn't exclude other alternatives - any more than we do with the music of Bach's father. Certainly many hearers seem to have enjoyed Mikhail Pletnev's flamboyant 1998 recording of Sonatas and Rondos by Bach (on DG), which exploits something like the full resources of the modern grand. Pletnev certainly stresses the 'romantic' anticipations in C.P.E.'s writing; I remember one reviewer remarking that, at times, one seemed to be listening to Liszt rather than C.P.E. Bach. There is also a fine CD by Carole Cerasi on metronome, on which six sonatas are played on the harpsichord.

On this new issue from Naxos, the young Austrian pianist Christopher Hinterhuber we have performances which might be 'located', as it were, somewhere between Spányi and Pletnev. The music is played on a modern piano, but with a sense of scale and sonority which is stylistically very sympathetic, and without the sometimes excessive flamboyance of Pletnev. I was very favourably impressed by Hinterhuber's playing on a recent Naxos disc of piano concertos by Ferdinand Ries, and that favourable impression is confirmed here. He plays this complex music, full of unexpected twists and turns, abrupt transitions of mood and direction, with attractive lucidity of thought and clarity of technique.

If you re a devotee of C.P.E. Bach's solo keyboard music, Spányi's series is the place to go. If you prefer the sound of the modern piano, and want a sampler of this music, Hinterhuber's recording will serve your purposes well.

Glyn Pursglove

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