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C.P.E. BACH (1714-1788)
Keyboard Concertos - Volume 14

Concerto in A minor (1750) H 430 (W.26) [27.39]
Sonatina in C major ( 1765) H.460 (W 101) [16.55]
Concerto in E flat Major (1762) H.467 (W.40) [25.26]
Miklos Spanyi (tangent piano)
Opus X/Petri Tapio Mattson; Miklos Spanyi
rec. Siuntio Church, Finland, June 2004. DDD
BIS-CD-1487 [71.12]

Well, raise your hands all those who have all of the earlier thirteen volumes. Now raise your hands those who had gone for the solo keyboard works which Bis has been bringing out for the last decade? If you have, well done. You have seen an ever burgeoning series improving in every respect. You are also probably running out of shelf space and there are still quite a few of them to go. They have been improving from a scholarly point of view, improving musically; perhaps developing is a better word. In any event the approach has not stood still. Those involved have always been looking at how things could be made more interesting and valuable.

The whole project has really been the brain-child of Miklos Spanyi who often writes the booklet notes and features as an executant on each disc. In volume one Rachel Wade in her notes told us that there are fifty-two concertos dating from 1733. That was the year allotted to the G major concerto (W3) recorded on volume one. The concerto was written when Bach was about nineteen. Not all of the concertos were originally written for keyboard; some were for cello or flute or indeed double concertos. C.P.E. made arrangements of them for keyboard, and others, like the A minor concerto, may have been arranged by another hand.

Anyway if you have been buying this series then no further introduction is necessary, but perhaps, like me you have purchased a few or perhaps you are just inquisitive. So let’s go back ten or eleven years.

I can remember a decade ago trying to find recordings of C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard concertos. I had read that he had made a major contribution to the genre, at about the same time as and immediately before Mozart. My sources indicated that his contribution was "very significant" (Grove) yet I found only a handful of works. Quite out of the blue this Bis series started up.

There are and were other possible discs and comparable performances. I should just mention those I purchased at the time and which are still available. There is a double disc set of the six concertos Wq 43 played by Bob Van Asperen on Virgin (VCD 545094 2). That was originally recorded in 1984. There are also two separate discs on CPO played by Ludger Remy (999 350-2 and 999 566-2). All of these works are from the 1750s and 1760s. As one might expect, a reconstructed harpsichord is used.

The present Bis series set about recording the concertos in chronological order. To the main concerto sequence Bis adds the works called by C.P.E. ‘Sonatinas’ for keyboard and string orchestra.

Spanyi having used the fortepiano from volume four has, since about volume six, moved onto using a fascinating and rare instrument: the tangent piano. This instrument, which was invented c.1705, resembles a harpsichord and an early piano in design. It normally features five octaves of keys and the strings are struck by a narrow wooden or metal slip instead of being depressed. Christoph Schroter discovered this by letting blank harpsichord jacks hit the strings, but dampers are also incorporated.

It is important that the recorded balance is maintained throughout the dynamic range of the instrument. Also important is forward placing in the sound spectrum and having an the accompanying orchestra sensitive to the needs of the music. This was not always the case in the earlier volumes (perhaps Vol. 11) but here the results are excellent and a pleasure to listen to.

From volume eight Spanyi used an instrument built in 1993 by Ghislein Porvlieghe. He also recorded with ‘Concerto Armonico’ in Budapest on period instruments. This new volume has moved the project to Finland and to a new ensemble named Opus X. They are a slightly smaller group of eleven musicians including four violin players. Spanyi also has a new tangent piano, a less decorative one, according to the accompanying picture. It is warmer-sounding - a less brittle instrument - and was made in 1998 by Potvlieghe. Spanyi writes about this change in a fascinating booklet essay following Jane Stevens’ equally interesting essay about C.P.E.’s influence upon his brothers and with some detailed analysis of the three works.

The characteristics of C.P.E. that we have come to expect are to the fore especially in the A minor concerto. These include dramatic contrasts in sound between soloists and accompanying instruments with sudden dynamic changes. Surprise and inventiveness are essential elements in the part-writing and there is an impatient tendency to develop a musical idea nearly as soon as it is heard. Also notable is the use of unusual modulatory passages.

The E flat concerto uses these characteristics less than most of the other concertos I have heard so far. Here the emphasis is on grace and melody. That may be because it is a much later work when the style changed from the heavier, rather twisted baroque to the ‘style galante’ of C.P.E.’s younger brother J.C. Bach whose music had been in popular circulation for a few years. Here was music of refined and thin-webbed sensitivity. The first movement which is really a minuet-cum-Sarabande is especially delightful to start with, before going into its typically more jagged, dotted rhythms.

The Sonatina is a lighter work anyway. However all three works here have three movements with the Sonatina beginning with a Larghetto. Then follows an Allegro and a concluding ‘alla polacca’. Taking another example, the Sonatina in F, recorded on Volume 13, BIS-CD-1307, also started with a slow movement and ended in a dance-like Allegretto. In this music the young spirit of Mozart can be felt near at hand in the wings.

If you are collecting this series then I need say little else. If you want to sample then I can seriously recommend that this disc would make an excellent place to start.

Gary Higginson

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