Carl Philipp Emmanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Organ Works
Prelude in D major Wq70/7 [4:31]
Sonata in F major Wq70/3 H84 [12:00]
Fantasia and Fugue in C minor Wq119/7 [5:41]
Sonata in A minor Wq70/4 H85 [12:37]
Fugue on BACH (edited Trotter) [3:02]
Sonata in G minor Wq70/6 H87 [14:13]
Adagio in D minor Wqnv66 [2:13]
Sonata in D major Wq70/5 H86 [12:27]
Thomas Trotter (Mitterreither/Flentrop organ)
rec. Eton College Hall, 5-6 January 2009. Stereo. DDD

Meetings of old and new characterise the organ music of C.P.E. Bach. The composer’s life in the Berlin court of Frederick the Great was a far cry from the Leipzig of his youth, where his father’s stubbornly old-fashioned baroque church music held sway. But C.P.E. returned to ecclesiastical service towards the end of his life, succeeding Telemann as Kantor at Hamburg. The continuity that runs through his output is the centrality of the keyboard to his music. All the works on this disc, whether written for organ, harpsichord, piano or whatever, demonstrate an ability to create coherent and engaging sound-worlds without seriously diverting from the established traditions of voicing and spacing melodic and contrapuntal lines under the fingers.

The disc presents C.P.E.’s first four organ sonatas interspersed with shorter, more ecclesiastical works. The sonatas were written for Princess Amalia, sister to Frederick The Great and a keen, if not quite virtuoso, organist. So the style is Galant and the technical demands are limited. Fortunately, C.P.E. rarely falls back on the stock figurations of the late 18th century, the Alberti bass or the repeated quaver chords that underpin so much Clementi and Mozart. Nevertheless, both composers are occasionally suggested, in the opening movement of the F major sonata for example. And a consciously civilised classicism often prevails, as in the last movement of that same Sonata and of the G minor Sonata. Imitation between the two keyboards, such as in the first movement of the A minor Sonata, harks back to music of earlier times, while the richly ornamented adagio and largo middle movements demonstrate the applicability of baroque melodic manipulation to the otherwise restrained classicism.

It is tempting to interpret this music in Oedipal terms, yet its stylistic and technical distance from the organ music of Johann Sebastian is everywhere apparent. In the opening Prelude in D major, for example, sequences are used, but within short, clipped phrases and not as the basis of long structural transitions. The fugue of the Fantasia and Fugue in C minor is another thoroughly classical reworking of a baroque genre, displaying a passion for clarity of texture, which unlike J.S., C.P.E. clearly valued over contrapuntal ingenuity. The Fugue on BACH makes the point even more clearly, another light confection, expertly constructed but stylistically about as far from the Art of Fugue as you’d think possible over the span of a single generation.

The recording was made on the Mitterreither/Flentrop organ of Eton College School Hall. The instrument was build in the 18th century for a church in Rotterdam - hence all the Dutch names in the registration - was brought to Eton around 1913 and restored to its original condition in 1973. It would therefore seem to be the ideal instrument for this repertoire, and Thomas Trotter achieves a rare lightness of tone without compromising the agogic punctuation that many of the sonatas outer movements require. Most of this repertoire is in the ‘pedal optional’ category, so there is little need for weight at the bass end of the spectrum. For all that, though, the Fantasia of the Fantasia and Fugue in C minor seems a little lacking at the bottom, especially given the rich tones of the punctuating chords in the manuals.

Overall this is a very satisfying recording. Performing repertoire from historical periods of transition invariably means taking sides, and Trotter leans these works more towards Mozart than to Johann Sebastian. But the family resemblance remains strong, not least in the sheer technical ability that the compositions demonstrate. Thomas Trotter’s technique and stylistic sensitivity are as acute here as in any of his recent recordings, so his fans are unlikely to be disappointed. And for fans of C.P.E. who are unfamiliar with this repertoire, it offers everything they could want in terms of courtly sophistication and melodic elegance, without ever entirely forgetting the earlier musical virtues of counterpoint, proportion, precision and form. 

Gavin Dixon