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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Prelude, Variations, and Fugue in D minor [16:55]
Fantasia and Rondo in A [13:47]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat, Op. 110 [21:54]
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 [27:01]
Cameron Watson (piano)
rec. February 2011, Tempi Music Studios (Bach), June 2011, Winspear Centre (Beethoven), Edmonton, Canada
MSR CLASSICS MS 1409 [79:37]

Cameron Watson’s blend of CPE Bach with Beethoven’s last piano sonatas is a smart and successful one. The two composers go well together, better than you’d expect, and Watson’s smart programming sets major-key Bach “against” minor-key Beethoven and vice versa, building a recital of true contrast and coherence. As far as playing goes, he’s more successful in the Bach, and that’s just fine.
 
These are not single works by CPE. They are a collection of five pieces brought together by Watson in an inspired ordering; he pairs, for instance, a character piece, a set of variations on ‘La Spagna,’ and a fugue into a coherent suite. Unfortunately they’re put on the same track and listed together on the back cover. Watson writes in his own liner notes that “these three works in D minor-played consecutively-give a sense of a (potential) larger architecture and [that architecture] gives Bach’s smaller works a form for comparison with a monument like Beethoven’s.”
 
He’s absolutely right, and Watson’s success with CPE Bach is the CD’s biggest. Besides the mere wonderful fact that these works actually stand up to Beethoven’s when compiled together, there are the excellent performances, and the use of a Yamaha to give a slightly drier sound. Period instruments apparently weren’t available.
 
The Beethoven sonatas have been recorded a hundred times before; they’re here, I suspect, at least in part to prove Watson’s point. He plays them well enough, especially in his account of No. 31, very romantic and subjective and thus daringly removed from CPE Bach’s world. I only have a real issue with Watson’s handling of rhythms in the arietta of No. 32: the “boogie” variation comes off square and awkward, in particular, part of a final movement that doesn’t reach the transcendent heights of the great pianists. Included in that category is Penelope Crawford, whose recital is going to be recommended in every Beethoven sonata review I write for the next five years. Buy it already.
 
As a concept album, this works, although I wish the Bach works had been put on separate tracks. As a recital program, it works too. And despite the fact that this is not first-rate Beethoven, it’s an album well worth hearing, because Watson has great ideas about the CPE, and it’s hard to think of a composer from that era who remains more under-appreciated. I’m happy to propose this to the curious, and to anyone who recognizes the Beethoven is not the main draw.
 
Brian Reinhart

Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano sonatas