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Carl Philipp Emmanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Symphony Wq. 183/1 in D major [10:39]
Symphony Wq. 182/4 in A major [12:10]
Symphony Wq. 182/5 in B minor [10:44]
Symphony Wq. 183/3 in F major [10:35]
Symphony Wq. 179 in E flat [12:15]
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Rebecca Miller
rec. live, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 30 January 2014
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD395 [56:36]

This disc was recorded live at a concert that was, doubtless, part of the OAE’s contribution to C.P.E. Bach’s tercentenary celebrations in 2014. Its aim is to showcase Emmanuel the symphonist. The booklet notes argue a case for him being one of the dominant figures of orchestral music in the second half of the eighteenth century; in fact “a crucial figure linking the expression of the late baroque to that of Beethoven.”

It works very well. Approaching this disc as a newcomer, you’ll get a well selected diet of five symphonies that show the composer at his dazzlingly original best. They are played with commitment, as well as directed with energy. Repeatedly, we see Emmanuel’s flair for originality and for wrong-footing his listener, which seems to rival that of Haydn. No 1 in D, for example, has an opening that seems intentionally designed to put you off the scent. The violins sing out one repeated note while the rest of the orchestra dances around it and then generates a joyously busy Allegro di molto movement in consequence. The effect is exciting and colourful, and, by contrast, the ensuing Largo is full of bucolic charm, with beautifully transparent textures and winsome solos. The final Presto has the character and energy of a rustic jig.

No. 4 in A seems to take a moment for the music to settle into its groove, with scatterbrained strings eventually settling into a confident unison tutti. The slow movement is then extremely persuasive with a lovely lilt to it. It also features beautiful string tone from OAE; winning without ever being sentimental. The finale seems to lurch in a different key altogether, and pulls off various harmonic and rhythmic tricks before it reaches the finishing line.

No. 5, the only minor key work on the disc, opens with darkly intense strings; it is clearly much more serious in intent. The slow movement is a Sarabande that, more than anything else on the disc, reminded me of his father's music, and the finale is a ferocious tempesta di mare, all violence and energy. It’s compelling and refreshing.

The first movement of No. 5 takes the playing with keys to a new extreme: this music seems unwilling to settle into a key at all, darting between several, struggling even to decide whether it's major or minor. Then Bach pulls a huge surprise by launching us into a tremendously poignant minor key Larghetto, led by the violas, that is as serious and focused as the first movement is skittish and unsettled. The finale is then jovial and almost folksy, the oboe tone setting off the strings very pleasingly.

The E flat symphony has an opening movement of dazzling busy-ness, the OAE strings giving their all in the service of the score. It’s very impressive, and the larghetto second movement has an acidic minor tinge. The finale has a feel that is partly of the hunt and partly a sprightly jig.

In sum, this is a well curated and very well played disc. In the same way that last year’s RIAS Kammerchor disc provided an excellent introduction to C.P.E.’s vocal works, so this furnishes an excellent introduction to the composer’s brilliantly original orchestral music. The audience, by the way, is extremely well behaved, and there is not a peep from them throughout the disc.

Simon Thompson