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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788)
Trio Sonatas & Flute Concertos
Alexis Kossenko (transverse flute)
Arte dei Suonatori
Les Ambassadeurs (Zefira Valova (violin), Tormod Dalen (cello), Allan Rasmussen (harpsichord))
rec. 2005/14, Church Church of the High Catholic Seminary, Goscikowo-Paradyz, Poland; Garnisons Kirke, Copenhagen, Denmark. DDD
ALPHA 821 [3 CDs: 79:59 + 70:19 + 64:21]

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach lived in a time of change. The style of the baroque era gradually gave way to a style which was less regulated, and which emphasized the importance of personal emotions. At the same time new forms gained ascendancy. The trio sonata was one of the genres most typical of the baroque era, and was largely established by Arcangelo Corelli. With the baroque style the trio sonata became more or less obsolete. Composers started to write more and more chamber music for obbligato keyboard instrument - first the harpsichord, then the fortepiano - and a melody instrument, in particular the violin and the transverse flute. Sometimes composers reworked trio sonatas from the early stages of their career into sonatas for keyboard and a melody instrument. Specimens can be found in the oeuvre of Johann Gottlieb Graun and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. The latter composed several trio sonatas under the guidance of his father. He revised most of them later, although he sometimes kept the texture of the trio sonata.

Les Ambassadeurs play a selection from the large corpus of chamber music in Bach's oeuvre. They play trio sonatas, one sonata for flute and basso continuo and one sonata for obbligato keyboard and violin. This programme attests to the stylistic changes in his time. The scoring reveals another significant feature: the growth in popularity of the transverse flute. That was not a new development: Bach's father Johann Sebastian already often gave the flute a prominent role and composed a number of sonatas for it. However, in Emanuel's days the flute became one of the most beloved instruments of the bourgeoisie, and this explains why it figures prominently in chamber music written for amateurs. Composers took this into account as Bach wrote in his autobiography of 1773: "Since I have had to compose most of my works for specific individuals and for the public, I have always been more restrained in them than in the few pieces that I have written merely for myself". Even so, in many of his works for amateurs his very personal style shines through. This is expressed by Johann Friedrich Reichardt who stated in 1771 that "[we] have but one Bach, whose perfectly original style is his alone".

His trio sonatas testify to that. Polyphony - one of the features of the baroque trio sonata - is almost completely absent. The style of the Empfindsamkeit is present which comes to the fore in the contrasts between the movements of a sonata. They show also Bach's adventures in the realm of harmony. The fact that these pieces were intended for amateurs doesn't mean they are devoid of technical brilliance. One should not underestimate the technical skills of the amateurs of those days.

The performances here are outstanding in every way. I can't remember having heard this repertoire in more sensitive and expressive interpretations. That is due to the skills of the players but could also be the result of the choice of pitch. Kossenko and his colleagues decided to adopt a low pitch of a=392 Hz which, as he states in the liner-notes, was common in Berlin at the time. This comes at the cost of brilliance in sound, but that is more than compensated for by a greater sensibility. I am especially impressed by the fine dynamic nuances Kossenko includes in his playing. The Sonata in B flat for keyboard and violin is also nicely played but I felt that the balance was less than ideal here. The harpsichord could have had a bit more presence.

The recording of the trio sonatas is new, but Alpha has decided to include in this production two older recordings of the complete flute concertos. Even if this set were to be offered to a reduced price - which I don't know - this is bad news for those who have already purchased the concerto recordings when they were released. Those who did not, have reason to be happy but unfortunately they are poorly served in that the booklet includes only liner-notes for the trio sonatas. It omits the notes for the original concerto recordings. I can't think of any excuse for that.

That said, there is every reason to add this music to your collection. Not only are these some of Bach's most brilliant and original pieces for a larger scoring - flute, strings and bc - but this set also includes a concerto which was only discovered as the archive of the Berlin Singakademie was sorted out. It is the Concerto in D (Wq 13) which is the earliest of Bach's flute concertos. It was not completely unknown: the Wq number indicates that it was catalogued among the keyboard concertos. That is not surprising: all of Bach's flute concertos have also been preserved as keyboard concertos. In almost every case the keyboard versions are transcriptions which Bach made for his own use. Only the Concerto in G (Wq 169) was probably written first for keyboard and later adapted for the flute. Three of the flute concertos have also been preserved with a solo part for cello.

The flute concertos show a clear stylistic change. The Concerto in D just mentioned is the most 'conventional', although the slow movement is quite expressive. The Concerto in a minor (Wq 166) is very different. In the opening movement one gets the impression that the flute and the strings are on different wavelengths. Time and again the lyricism of the flute part is roughly interrupted by the interventions of the strings. Here and in other movements ideas seem to be cut off before they have been brought to an end. This lends Bach's music an emphatically nervous quality which is very much a feature of his style.

That style has been captured brilliantly by Alexis Kossenko, this time playing with Arte dei Suonatori, one of the best in the business. Its characteristic energetic playing is perfectly appropriate in the fast movements. However, the lyrical parts fare just as well: the strings play with warmth and intensity which suits the expression in the slow movements.

This set is definitely one of the best productions of music by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach to have been released recently. It is a worthy tribute to a great composer who had a lasting influence on the course of music history.

Johan van Veen

CD 1
Sonata (Trio) for transverse flute, violin and bc in G (Wq 150 / H 574) [16:37]
Sonata for transverse flute and bc in e minor (Wq 124 / H 551) [5:54]
Sonata (Trio) for transverse flute, violin and bc in G (Wq 144 / H 568) [13:32]
Sonata (Trio) for transverse flute, violin and bc in A (Wq 146 / H 570) [12:20]
Sonata for harpsichord and violin in B flat (Wq 77 / H 513) [16:29]
Sonata (Trio) for transverse flute, violin and bc in D (Wq 151 / H 575) [14:31]
CD 2
Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in G (Wq 169 / H 445) [24:50]
Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in B flat (Wq 167 / H 435) [22:40]
Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in d minor (Wq 22 / H 425) [22:45]
CD 3
Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in a minor (Wq 166 / H 431) [24:10]
Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in D (Wq 13 / H 416) [19:32]
Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in A (WQ 168 / H 438) [20:37]