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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Sinfonia a tre voci in D Major, H585 (1754) [9:45]
Twelve variations on ‘La Folia’, Wq118/9, H263 (1776) [7:58]
Trio Sonata in C Minor, ‘Sanguineus and Melancholicus’, Wq161/1, H579 (1749) [14:17]
Viola da gamba Sonata in D Major, Wq137, H559 (1746) [11:59]
Trio Sonata in B Flat Major, Wq158, H584 (1754) [13:19]
The Purcell Quartet: Catherine Mackintosh (violin); Elizabeth Wallfisch (violin); Richard Boothby (viola da gamba); Robert Woolley (harpsichord)
rec. 29-30 October, 1986, Haberdashers’ Aske’s School, Elstree, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom. DDD


This inordinately pleasing collection of C.P.E. Bach's works from The Purcell Quartet has much to commend it. There's beauty, variety, a challenge or two, something older than its heyday, something borrowed and a hint of the blues (in the widest sense of that word). The whole is more than competently explored by the two violins, viola da gamba and harpsichord of The Purcell Quartet. As an introduction to the breadth of C.P.E. Bach – or just a delightful collection of some of his most personable works – this CD can be wholeheartedly recommended.

The twelve 'La Folia' variations (Wq118/9; H263) were published in 1776 and contain some startling moments of instrumentation, tempo and almost wayward experimentation with tone. And they make for very compelling listening. The dance first emerged in Spainin the mid to late sixteenth century and would have been known in Germanythanks to Corelli's variations for violin and continuo (Op.5 No.12). Only when one remembers the self-possessed red-blooded side of Carl Philipp Emanuel's father, can one really believe that this music - with its jumps, trills, imitative timbres and rhythms, pauses, attack, parody and races - is by him. What playing from Robert Woolley. A little tour de force that ends all too soon and is almost worth the price of the CD alone! 

Containing just as much substance, and a hidden 'message', is the Trio in C Minor (Wq161/1; H579) from over 25 years earlier. It's a piece about whose context you really need to know: the prevailing musical taste had it in part that music, instrumental music, was only 'about' itself. And that thus it was somewhat inferior - because it had no words since music was not made of words as such. Bach wrote this piece with a programme to contradict this assertion. Subtitled 'Sanguineus and Melancholicus', it is an attempt - through the two violins, which represent those two of the four humours - to let these two approaches to life converse. The violins actually carry on a dialogue, with mute answers, humming, dumb-shows, questions, answers, ignoring, gambits etc. This is all expressed by changes in tempo, style and theme. It must have been a gift for Catherine Mackintosh and Elizabeth Wallfisch, who neither overplay nor miss a beat. In fact, if you think about it, the only way this will work is by letting the music - rather than the effect(s) - lead. Otherwise it wouldn’t be the music 'talking'. Brave! 

There are two other sonate: a viola da gamba (Wq137; H559 from the same period in Bach's career) and in B Flat Major (Wq158; H584) from six years later. It's not clear whether Bach was familiar with the viola da gamba, or whether this was first written for it, or for a violin. Regardless, the result is poignant, intricate and beautiful. It demands your full attention. Give it. The melodies and ensemble playing are highly compelling. 

The same goes for the simple artlessness of the B Flat Trio Sonata with its pizzicato then string ensemble passages - they are played with such aplomb here - looking forward at least to Beethoven. These are both little gems. Not so much because they contain anything groundbreaking or stylishly spectacular. But because Bach is so clearly in command; and that has communicated itself completely and transparently to The Purcell Quartet, whose pleasure and authority are infectious, now in holding back, now in swelling, now in standing away, almost, to observe - but never marvel at - their own delicacy and technique. 

The CD begins with a Sinfonia a tre voci in D major (H585, from 1754). This is sprightliness itself. And the playing is gracious, gorgeous and gregarious: it's an extrovert work with real substance. Take this with the other pieces here and offer them to someone with a prejudiced misperception of the Baroque's 'ornament and restricted range of emotion'. If they don't change their mind, they haven't a note of music in their soul. This is splendid, well-chosen and lovely music - extremely stylishly played with unassuming technical brilliance. The recording is clean and forward. The quantity, and depth of explanation in the booklet is a smidgeon lacking, perhaps. But this is a release to buy, come to know, and love! 

Mark Sealey 


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