Carl Philip Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Prussian Sonatas, Wq.48 (1742)
Sonata no.1 in F [11:44]
Sonata no.2 in B flat [12:48]
Sonata no.3 in E [11:44]
Sonata no.4 in C minor [12:50]
Sonata no.5 in C [13:48]
Sonata no.6 in A [15:30]
Susan Alexander-Max (grand piano c.1790)
rec. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 24-25 October 2010.
NAXOS 8.572674 [78:39]
US-born Susan Alexander-Max has made some good recordings over the last decade for Naxos, from her three volumes of early sonatas by Muzio Clementi (8.555808, 8.557695, 8.570475) to her Hummel chamber works album (8.557694). More recently she received plaudits for her all-clavichord recording of CPE Bach's half-brother Johann Christian (review).
Her period instrument expertise finds itself applied to an early grand piano for this recital of Bach's relatively well-known 'Prussian' Sonatas, so called after their dedication to Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia, later to be Frederick the Great. Preserved in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, this five-octave instrument dates back to the first decade or two of proper 'harpsichord-case' grand piano design, completed in Vienna around 1790 by Ferdinand Hofmann. One of its innovations is a moderator that softens (muffles) the sound by means of knee-operated levers - this can be heard in action on the very first track.
The Hofmann has a striking tone, a little twangy at times but robust and bright, and Bach's Classically expressive music seems to thrive on it. Alexander-Max notes the sense of "privilege" she feels in performing on this valuable instrument, but it must be said that she does sound rather restrained in these sonatas - almost as if she were afraid of causing damage. Hers are somewhat perfunctory rather than compelling accounts.
In any case, she can do nothing about the fact that Naxos's engineering has had a rare misfire: potential buyers should be aware from the outset that audio quality is compromised by a fairly faint but continuous noise, resembling underwater whirring, that lies 'under' Alexander-Max's whole recital. It is hardly conspicuous at the low volumes listeners are most likely to set for such period music, but it is easily audible through headphones at higher levels, and once the ear becomes aware of it, the weirdness seems to leach through into the music itself. The in-house reviewer for Naxos refers to "Reliable sound quality", a baffling remark - but how this bizarrerie went unnoticed by so many before publication is the biggest puzzle.
Pieter-Jan Belder's recording of the Prussian Sonatas for Brilliant Classics came out around the same time as the Naxos (94320). Though he performs on a combination of harpsichord and clavichord, which may not be to all tastes, his immediately became one of the best accounts available of these works - for Belder the notes disport where they seem merely to trudge for Alexander-Max. For only a little more than the price of a single Naxos CD, Brilliant include Belder's recording of CPE's slightly later 'Württemberg' Sonatas, less frequently heard than the Prussian cycle, but arguably more fulfilling.
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