Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Solo Keyboard Music Volume 21: Six Sonatas with Varied Reprises (First edition by George Ludewig Winter, Berlin, 1760)
Sonata in F, Wq 50/1 (H 136) [9:47]
Sonata in G, Wq 50/2 (H137) [13:19]
Sonata in a minor, Wq 50/3 (H 138) [11:44]
Sonata in d minor, Wq 50/4 (H 139) [14:08]
Sonata in B-flat, Wq 50/5 (H 126) [28:51]
Sonata in c minor, Wq 50/6 (H140) [8:58]
Miklós Spányi (clavichord)
Clavichord built in 1999 by Joris Potvlieghe, Tollembeek (Belgium), facsimile of an instrument built by Gottfried Joseph Horn, Dresden, 1785 (now in the Musikinstrumenten-museum in Leipzig)
rec. Heikki Sarvela Hall, Liminka, Finland, June 2007. DDD.
BIS BIS-CD-1624 [78:35]
BIS, who are doing such sterling service in recording J S Bach’s cantatas, are also doing his son C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard works proud: this is the 21st in a Solo Keyboard series which is likely to run to 31 volumes. There are also 16 volumes of his Keyboard Concertos, all featuring Miklós Spányi on a variety of period instruments. Many of the works on both sets of recordings, like the six sonatas here, have no rival recordings.
I reviewed, enjoyed and recommended Volume 16 of the concerto series in April 2008 (BIS-CD-1587 – see review), on which Spányi plays the tangent piano and harpsichord. I was, therefore, looking forward to hearing this new volume in the Solo Keyboard series – indeed, knowing that it was on its way, I anticipated its arrival by listening to it via the Naxos Music Library.
I recommend that you follow the same procedure, listening first from the Naxos Library, if you can, before purchase, as I have to point out that the clavichord, the least extrovert of the family of keyboard instruments, may not be to all tastes, though it appears to have been CPE Bach’s favourite. Alternatively try to listen to some of the samples which many online retailers provide. You will also find the booklet at the Naxos Music Library and be able to read its excellent analyses of these sonatas.
The six sonatas in volume 21, collectively Wq50, were apparently well received by their royal dedicatee, Princess Anna Amalia, younger sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia, because she subsequently named C.P.E. Bach her Capellmeister. Published in 1760, these works are in effect written-out sets of variations for amateurs of a kind which professional musicians – especially a son of the great J.S. Bach – would have been expected to improvise.
The notes describe the set as an opulent offering, but the choice of language must not be taken to imply that the six sonatas of Wq 50 are in any way comparable in stature to the great Musikalische Opfer or Musical Offering which C.P.E. Bach’s father had presented to Frederick the Great, except in so far as both collections contain music in variation form.
The music here certainly requires a great deal of performance skill, from which it appears that the Princess herself was a player of some prowess. If you have been following Spányi’s series and the reviews of it here on Musicweb and elsewhere, you will know that his technical prowess can be taken entirely for granted. Whether he can ‘sell’ these works to a modern audience, however, is another matter: I have to admit that I found some of them somewhat four-square didactic, rather in the manner of the Czerny Studies through which, like most piano pupils, I once had to plough. C.P.E. is, after all, trying to formalise in print what should be an extempore – and, therefore, unrepeatable – experience. He was, too, the learned author of the most influential work in the 18th century on keyboard technique, Versuch über die wahre Art Clavier zu spielen (1753) so, despite his contemporary reputation as an exponent of the empfindsamer Stil or affective style, it’s perhaps natural that these six sonatas should in the main sound a little didactic to modern ears.
Try the opening movement of the first sonata on this CD, Wq50/1, as an example of what I found the less appealing aspect of these works: it may be that C.P.E. was trying to emulate the spontaneity of extemporisation, but it seems to me that he has succeeded too well in music which doesn’t seem too sure of where it’s going. Even the direction allegretto seems to be unsure of itself, not quite able to decide to be allegro. On the other hand, the vivace finale of this sonata – in three movements, like everything here except the single-movement No.6 – the allegro assai finale of Wq50/2 and the opening presto of Wq50/3 do seem to know where they are going – and I’m happy to follow them.
If you follow my advice to sample the music first, be aware that the sound on the CD is rather fuller and has greater presence than the low bit-rate from the Naxos Music Library might suggest: the more detailed, more rounded sound of the disc drew me into a greater all-round appreciation than I had formed before it arrived.
You may find, as I did, the music on the preceding Volume 20 (BIS-CD-1623) rather more to your taste: also featuring Spányi on the clavichord, it contains five Sonatas from Wq65, Nos. 34, 40, 23, 41 and 45, with an alternative allegro third movement for the latter.
There are also two volumes in the series, featuring C.P.E.’s six substantial ‘Württemberg’ Sonatas, Wq49, Volumes 16 and 17 (BIS-CD-1423 and BIS-CD-1424), which modern listeners may find more amenable. Try all these out at the invaluable Naxos Library first if you can.
My predilection for period instruments is not absolute: when the modern piano is as well played as it is by Angela Hewitt in Bach, for example, I’m happy to praise the results. Ms Hewitt, of course, records for Hyperion and it may well be that the same label has found her equal in presenting 18th-century keyboard works on the modern instrument. I’m referring to a 78-minute CD of C.P.E. Bach Keyboard Sonatas, set down by Danny Driver at Wyastone in August 2009 and released by Hyperion in June 2010. Without losing the individuality of the music and without pushing the piano beyond the limits of its 18th-century predecessors, Driver manages also to remind us of the acknowledged influence of C.P.E. Bach on Haydn. It is, indeed, possible, as the notes point out, that C.P.E. himself played some of this music on the fortepiano.
We praised Driver’s 2-CD set of York Bowen’s solo piano music on MusicWeb International (CDA67751/2 – see review), but somehow missed out on his C.P.E.; I’m pleased to able to right that now. (CDA67786, H25, H27, H29, H47 and H50: Wq65/17, Wq48/2, 4 and 6 and Wq52/1, on CD or as a download in mp3 or lossless flac here.)
Even more attractive are C.P.E.’s three Cello Concertos, Wq 170-172, as recorded by Tim Hugh and Richard Studt (Naxos 8.553298) or Raphael Wallfisch and Jonathan Morton (Nimbus NI5848 – see comparative review).
The clavichord is far from easy to record – too distant and the result is indistinct, too close and the sound is harsh and unnatural. BIS seem to me to get it about right here: if they err by being a little too close, that’s preferable to the alternative.
Not for all tastes, then – I’d recommend Volume 20 and Driver on Hyperion (see above for both) more wholeheartedly – but students of C.P.E. Bach will certainly want Volume 21 for completeness; they and the rest of us can be sure that the music is unlikely to find a better exponent.
While on the subject of music by the sons of Bach, I must recommend a recent addition to the Naxos 18th-century Symphony series, containing three symphonies by Johann Christoph Friedrich (1732-1795) on 8.572217. Morten Schuld-Jensen with the Leipzig Kammerorchester may not have quite the same sense of period style as Miklós Spányi, but the music is very entertaining.
Brian Wilson
A clear recommendation for students of C.P.E. and of keyboard style – others should try to sample first.