Music lovers can hardly fail to notice that 2014 is Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach year. He was born in 1714 and that is certainly a reason to pay special attention to his oeuvre.
The status quo
is different from that in 1988 when his death 200 years before was commemorated. At that time the largest part of his oeuvre was unknown, and his name did not appear all that often on concert programmes or on disc. The position is very different today. His music is regularly performed and recorded, and from that perspective the present commemoration is less important than the previous one. Even so, there are still plenty of compositions from his pen which are little-known, especially in the genre of vocal music. There can be little doubt that this year many discs with Bach's music will be released. Brilliant Classics is especially active. The present disc is one of various releases devoted to his music.
At the core of its programme are the three quartets for keyboard, transverse flute, viola and bass. They belong to the best-known part of his chamber music and are available in several recordings. That is partly due to their quality, but also their rather unusual scoring. For most of the 18th century the viola did not take a prominent role in chamber music. It received was a more pronounced participant in the music of the classical era. This was foreshadowed in the time between the baroque and classical eras. One of the reasons was the decline of the viola da gamba. Its role was overtaken by the viola and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach composed music in which the viola was suggested as alternative to the gamba.
The scoring of these quartets causes some problems. The main issue is the part which is called the "bass". Bach compiled a catalogue of his works and included these quartets with the indication "for keyboard, flute, viola and bass". However, in a manuscript preserved in Berlin each quartet omits the reference to a "bass" part in the title, and a copy in Brussels doesn't include an independent bass part. Some interpreters believe that the cello should be used to support the left hand of the keyboard. Others omit a cello, and so do the performers on the present disc.
Another difference between performances is the choice of keyboard. The quartets date from 1788, the year of Bach's death. At that time the fortepiano had fully established itself as an alternative to the harpsichord. It is safe to say that it had become more or less the standard instrument of professional keyboard players. Among amateurs the harpsichord was still very common. The German title says Clavier
and that seems to indicate that any keyboard instrument with strings can be used. As the clavichord is obviously not an option one has the choice between harpsichord, fortepiano or tangent piano. It is impossible to tell which is 'right'. I feel that the fortepiano is most satisfying, especially because of its dynamic possibilities. The Helianthus Ensemble delivers good and pleasant performances, but they are lacking in dynamic differentiation. With a fortepiano the dynamic contrasts would probably have been stronger, and as a result the other players might have brought some stronger dynamic shading to the table. The tempi are largely convincing, but the allegro di molto
which closes the Quartet in D
could have been a little faster.
The chamber music landscape was versatile in Bach's time. Pieces with a concertante role for the keyboard became increasingly popular, and he himself composed a number of sonatas for keyboard and a melody instrument. However, the traditional trio sonata was still quite common in his day, and he himself contributed to this genre, especially in his early years. The Trio sonata in A
is one of a series he composed in 1731, under the guidance of his father. They have not been preserved in their original form; Bach reworked them in 1747, when he was in the service of Frederick the Great. It is notable that this sonata also exists in a version for obbligato keyboard and violin. It is probably the kind of music which his employer liked, more than the more 'progressive' parts of Bach's chamber music.
The Duet in e minor
is a specimen of a genre which is not well represented in Bach's oeuvre. His brother Wilhelm Friedemann wrote various duets for two melody instruments without a bass, and so did Telemann, Emanuel's predecessor as Musikdirektor
in Hamburg. Only three duets from Emanuel's pen are known; one of them has been lost. The two instruments are treated on strictly equal terms. Sometimes they follow their own route, but there are also passages in which they imitate each other and there are episodes in parallel motion.
My critical notes notwithstanding I have enjoyed these performances. While the quartets may fall short in the dynamics department, the performers play them beautifully, and the ensemble is excellent. I have not missed the cello; the bass part comes off well in Guido Morini's hands. That is also due to the very good recording. The trio sonata and the duet belong to the lesser-known part of Bach's oeuvre, and their inclusion is most welcome. Those who would like to hear more of the trio sonatas should turn to a recording by Les Amis de Philippe on CPO. A good performance of the quartets with fortepiano is, for instance, the one by Shalev Ad-El, Jan De Winne, Marten Boeken and Roel Dieltiens on Passacaille (1998/2011).
Johan van Veen