Carl Philip Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
The Hamburg Symphonies (1774-5) with twelve obbligato parts Wq183 (H663-666): No. 1 in D major [9.39], No. 2 in E flat [10.42], No. 3 in F major [9.20], No. 4 in G major [11.05]; Harpsichord Concerto in C minor Wq43 No. 4 [12.46]
Solamente Naturali/Didier Talpain
Marek Toporowski (harpsichord)
rec. February 2007, Hlohovec Castle, Slovakia
CPE was something of a one-off. He was the second surviving son of JS by his first wife. Like his elder brother, Wilhelm Friedeman, he had an eccentric and almost wild side artistically speaking. This was brought about by his own personality but also by the ‘spirit of the times’.
The late 1760s and 1770s was the period in Germany in which the concept of ‘Sturm und drang’ (Storm and Stress) developed. The generation of JS - and even a little later - had been one where beauty was attained through a sense of form and structure over emotional content. In that brave new world this was coupled with ‘Empfindsamkeit’ - often translated as ‘sentimentality’ (I rather prefer ‘sensitivity’). There stormy music - or the storm in the art-form - is contrasted with an almost pathetic sadness and over-indulgence of emotion. The rise of artists like Klinger who seems first to have used the term and later by Goethe brought about a new phase, which ultimately led to ‘Romanticism’ in which how one felt emotionally and personally about an issue or a work of art took hold. CPE’s earlier work at court or church often demanded conformity but in Hamburg he found patrons who would allow him his head. These symphonies and the concerto come from this period.
What can we expect to hear? CPE wrote about eighteen symphonies in all but the four ‘Hamburg’ ones are quite an advance on those from the previous decade not least in the instrumentation. This now includes flutes, oboes, bassoons and horns and in several curious combinations which CPE is able to explore. The slow movement of the E flat work should be noted. First movements, especially those in a minor key - but also, as here, in major keys like E flat - are often quite fast. Wide-ranging melodic lines jump around jaggedly from high to low registers. There is often a firm bass-line and even a strong pulse to counterbalance these upper lines. There is much nervous energy with sudden silences. Sequences are not common but can be strident and powerful. The volume can be unrelenting but sudden dynamic contrasts ff to pp are not uncommon and often unexpected. Trills are expressive not purely decorative. Lines may be unexpectantly broken off as in Goethe where sentences unfinished are often left in mid-air both in poetry and prose. The slow movements which quite often suddenly break in unannounced are often delicate, almost fragile and sometimes feature flute solos. Finales (there is never a Minuet and Trio) are strong and powerful often with much work for horns and woodwind. Sometimes these disappear off into remote keys without conventional preparation, The keyboard concertos - although not the one recorded here - are virtuosic: a reminder that CPE had written a treatise on keyboard technique.
In performances of CPE’s Symphonies and Hamburg Concertos what one needs are a conductor and group who are not frightened to indulge passions and let themselves go. So the question arises: does this happen here?
I have possessed for some time a recording of these symphonies by Gustav Leonhardt and the Orchestra of the Enlightenment. This dates from circa 1990 - my version which may not now be available is on Virgin Veritas (72435 6118225). I have enjoyed it for some time so I listened to the two versions side by side. ‘Solamente Naturali’ uses period instruments as does Leonhardt. Undoubtedly Leonhardt, especially in No. 1 and in the first movement of No. 2, is more lumpy and heavy. The new recording is always rather lithe with quicker, even brusque tempi especially in first movements. This means that, for example, the F major Symphony runs in at half a minute shorter overall. The D major is over seventy seconds shorter. However I sometimes feel that details are lost although the wind playing is clear and suitably athletic, as in the Presto of the F major symphony. Bach puts in many details, often between phrases, which are delightful and important and which need to be heard. I prefer the warmth of the sound quality on the Virgin studio recording. Leonhardt's coupling is the symphony from the Wq 182 group of six which is a fine work for strings of 1773. Talpain couples the four symphonies with a four movement C minor harpsichord concerto in the ‘sturm and drang’ style. It is played with style and delicacy.
With the precision playing that Talpain can command comes a tendency to exaggerate the faster tempi and make even slower the slow tempi; this is however in the spirit of CPE. Even so, I am sometimes left rather breathless. It is difficult to believe that Bach’s Hamburg orchestra could have played with such precision and dexterity; as good as they must have been. It must be said that Talpain is certainly exciting and riveting but for those of you who feel that performances of early music, even of more modern pieces, is getting faster and less expressive, then these Allegros and Prestos offer a confirmatory evidence. I’m not sure whether I should ditch Leonhardt in favour of this new version. There have been other recordings. The version from the Chamber Orchestra of Berlin under Helmut Koch on Berlin Classics has been well reviewed but I have not heard any others.
With certain reservations then this Brilliant Classics release should please not least because it will not set you back many pennies. Also because if you do not know these extraordinary works then this as good a place as any to start. The booklet has an excellent essay by Didier Talpain, colour photos and artist biographies. In my copy the pages were printed in the wrong order.
Gary Higginson
If you do not know these extraordinary works then this as good a place as any to start.