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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Piano Concerto in D major, Wq. 11 (1743) [22:17]
Piano Concerto in C minor, Wq. 43 / 4 (1771) [12:28]
Piano Concerto in E minor, Wq. 24 (1745) [22:19]
Michael Rische (piano)
Berliner Barock Solisten
rec. 2019, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem

When you’ve got a famous father, it must be difficult to decide whether simply to follow in his footsteps, do something completely different, or forge a career which manages to accommodate both aspects, without stifling individual creativity.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was the fifth child and second surviving son of Johann Sebastian, who, by choosing Philipp as the boy’s second name, was honouring fellow-composer Georg Philipp Telemann, a friend of Johann Sebastian, and Emanuel’s godfather. At that time, it was often said that, if your surname was Bach, then you were more than likely a musician. Like his brothers, Johann Christian, Wilhelm Friedemann, and Johann Christoph Friedrich, Emanuel went into the family ‘business’, so to speak.

But Emanuel was probably born exactly at the right time, since the transition between his father’s Baroque style and the Classical style to come, was already underway. Not only did Emanuel almost immediately associate himself with this, but he was also able to bring his distinctive musical personality to the task in hand. His contribution was to bring his own expressive and often quite turbulent approach, applying the principles of dramatic expression to musical structures in his writing – the so-named empfindsamer Stil, or ‘sensitive style.

Emanuel was also an influential pedagogue, with his ‘Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments’, which was already in its third edition by 1780, and would be studied by Haydn and Beethoven, among others. Amid its many useful chapters even today, especially in terms of ornamentation, Emanuel broke with tradition by allowing – indeed, even encouraging – the use of the thumbs, previously something of a no-go area, but which since his time has been standard keyboard technique. But for all this, he hasn’t really received the accolades he deserves, considering his extensive output across different genres, and is still probably only best known for a single, short piano piece – his toccata-like Solfeggietto in C minor (1766).

But two labels in particular – Germany’s Hänssler Classic and Sweden’s BIS Records – are making an absolutely invaluable contribution to Emanuel’s standing in music history, with the abundance, and quality of their recordings. Hänssler’s latest release of more of his Piano Concertos is the newest in a long-running series, and presents another three concertos – Wq. 11, 43 / 4, and 24 respectively. For anyone new to CPE Bach, his works are referred to by ‘Wq.’ numbers, from Alfred Wotquenne’s 1906 catalogue – there is also a much later system of ‘H’ numbering, after Eugene Helm’s 1989 catalogue. Probably the most familiar composers’ catalogues are those for Mozart (Köchel), or Schubert (Deutsch).

Ostensibly this new release would appear to be Volume 6 in the Hänssler series, although I have been unable to find any reference to this on the CD itself. MWI colleague David Barker reviewed Volume 5 in 2018, where, in particular, he provides further information on both the BIS, and Hänssler Piano Concertos series, and cataloguing as applied to Emanuel’s works.

The present CD opens with the Concerto in D, Wq. 11, written in 1743, and published two years later. Ten years earlier in Leipzig, at the tender age of 19, Emanuel wrote his first keyboard concerto – Wq. 1 in A minor. At the same time, his father, Johann Sebastian, produced his own Concerto in D minor BWV 1052. Listening to both works, it would still be hard to think that they were both written at the same time at place, despite the father being some 30 years older than his son. While Johann Sebastian’s work relies a great deal on polyphony and counterpoint, the Emanuel’s seems almost to have eschewed these two vital components of music at the time, particularly in the keyboard writing itself. Although Mozart (1756-1791) is generally considered to be the ‘father’ of the Classical Piano Concerto, with his 23 works in the genre, CPE Bach, with 64 concertos under his belt, certainly has more than just a part-claim in this, and, while this might still appear a monumental number of examples, it was the one form that Emanuel actually struggled with for over 50 years of his composing life.

Wq. 1 opens with a bright and cheerful Allegro di molto, and could be said to epitomize the new style of piano-writing, and the development of first-movement sonata form, when used in the concerto environment. This involves the crucial element of a double exposition, where the orchestra has a chance to present the thematic material, in a somewhat abridged version, before the soloist enters, and the procedure is repeated at greater length, and in much more elaborated fashion, this time adjusting the key scheme along the way, to move away from the original home key, or tonic. Soloist and orchestra then, separately and in combination, proceed to develop the material, visiting remoter keys in the process, before the opening themes return. There is then a short section where the soloist – unaccompanied – has an opportunity for a little more virtuoso display in the cadenza, before the orchestra re-joins, and moves swiftly to the close.

In the Romantic period, it was the opening that received the most attention, and ultimately led to the kind of first movements in Grieg’s, and Schumann’s piano concertos, where the soloist has a quick opening flourish, usually virtuosic in character, before the orchestra gives out the main material, after which the soloist re-enters. At the opposite end of the movement, the cadenzas became considerably more extended, and ideal vehicles for the soloist to display his prowess. Sometimes such cadenzas were provided by other eminent performers, or composers, sometimes freely improvised on the night, or, as in Emanuel Bach’s case, written by the composer himself.

The second movement – Adagio non molto – features a plaintive, expressive melodic line in the tonic minor, that looks back somewhat to the Baroque, with its use of ornamentation in the piano part, and the contemporary vibrato-less contribution from the string orchestra. The composer includes another short cadenza for the soloist. This is followed by a contrastingly lighter toccata-like Allegro finale, which again keeps to the formal plan of the first movement. Once again, Emanuel creates the most interest, especially from the harmonic standpoint, in the development section.

The six concertos of Wq. 43 were composed in 1771, and the fourth concerto of the set, in C minor, was, according to the sleeve-note, the first four-movement piano concerto ever written, even though a mere 12 minutes or so long, and some 10 minutes shorter than the earlier three-movement concerto. The four movements follow on without a break, and, not only are the first, and fourth based on the same thematic material, but in the latter, Emanuel incorporates, in the solo part, themes from the second and third movements, too. While the initial thought of it being a four-movement piano concerto, the like of which was only ever really imitated by Brahms, in his Second Piano Concerto (1881), Emanuel’s experimental work really found its true soulmate in Liszt’s single-movement Piano Concerto No 2 (1855). The C minor Concerto is one of Emanuel’s shortest concertos, and opens with an Allegro assai, followed by a Poco adagio, then a Tempo di Minuetto – which in Brahms’s concerto became a tempestuous and impassioned Scherzo – with another Allegro assai to round things off. Not only is the C minor Concerto interesting from the aspect of internal design, Emanuel also adds two flutes, and one horn to the string ensemble heard elsewhere on the CD.

The closing Concerto in E minor, Wq. 24, appeared some 20 years or so before the four-movement C minor example, in 1748. Its two outer movements are both marked Allegretto, and frame a slow middle movement, Largo, in which Emanuel once more includes his own short cadenza. The opening Allegretto has more of a Baroque feel to it, especially with its regular pulsing bass-line over which triplet, and dotted-rhythms patterns dominate the writing, virtually throughout the whole of its 7 minutes or so. The Largo is considerably more ornamented in the solo part, which again tends to look back, rather than forward in time. The cadenza, when it arrives just before the close, is nothing more than the merest lyrical comment on what has gone before. The triple-metre Finale, while using the similar rhythmic formula of patterns in dotted notes and triplets, could also be said to look forward to the period of Sturm und Drang, which was really in its heyday during the period 1770-1780. Again the solo part is heavily ornamented.

So far I have not referred to any aspect of the performance, either in terms of the Berliner Barock Solisten, or solo pianist Michael Rischke.

This is exactly the same combination that figured in the Volume 5 review, where it was felt that, while the performances were consistent and showed finesse overall, sometimes this almost appeared ‘a little too uniform’ in places. This was indeed my first impression as I listened to Volume 6.

While in the slower, lyrical passages both soloist and ensemble seemed able to bring the necessary sentiment and expressive qualities to the performance, this was sometimes felt lacking in the faster passage-work. Naturally it is far harder to incorporate the same flexibility and fluidity of shape in fast passages, often bristling with all manner of ornamentation,

The Barock Solisten adopt Baroque playing techniques and conventions, whereas Rischke plays on a regular grand piano, rather than harpsichord, tangent piano, or fortepiano. It isn’t, though, that these two different sound-sources don’t sit at all well together, but the crux of the matter would seem to be that Rischke, in many of the fast semiquaver passages, with or without ornamentation, somehow manages to play everything with virtually the same depth of touch, which can make passage-work become somewhat relentless after a time. Unlike the harpsichord, where uniformity of touch is par for the course, the whole raison d'être of the fortepiano and pianoforte, is their ability to inflect each note which its own key velocity, and hence volume. Bizarrely, Rischke would appear to be playing the piano to emulate the technique of a harpsichord, even though this is certainly no easy task, requiring extremely resilient and well-disciplined fingers.

Either way, the recording is still very natural-sounding, and engineers have ensured there is excellent balance throughout between the two protagonists, which is then recreated to perfection on disc. The pianist has provided his own sleeve-notes, which describe the three works recorded, as well as putting them into some kind of chronological context, while the music itself is undoubtedly most pleasant to listen to, especially if you want to get to know more about the composer.

But it must also be said that the Complete Keyboard Concerto Series on the BIS label – where Hungarian organist and harpsichordist Miklós Spányi, performs the concertos variously on harpsichord, tangent piano, and fortepiano, accompanied by period orchestras Concerto Armonico, and Opus X – does offer some significant opportunities for comparison.

Philip R Buttall

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