Checking back in on the C.P.E. Bach Tricentennial, thought I’d share what the folks putting together the new Complete Works edition have deemed The Essential C.P.E. Bach : “a selection of the composer’s 25 ‘greatest hits’ of solo keyboard, chamber, and orchestral music.”
Contents of The Essential C.P.E. Bach
It’s a fascinating (and to my mind, rather obscure) list, containing several works which are utterly new to me, and will take a little further investigation. There are also a few “usual suspects,” like the Magnificat (previously discussed in this space), and some of the symphonies that get frequent spins in classical-radio-land. Like the first of the so-called “Hamburg” Symphonies, played below in terrific recording by Andrew Manze and the English Concert.
Want to know more about the symphony? You can read the Musical Musings entry here.
One of the pieces by Carl Philipp Emmanuel that has never fallen out of favor in his native Germany is his Magnificat in D Major, a work that perhaps deliberately shares the same name – and even key signature – as one of J.S. Bach’s most famous choral works. It was composed in 1749, just a year before the death of Bach the father.
And there is some supposition that the C.P.E. wrote this expansive work originally as an audition piece to succeed J.S. as the Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. “Originally,” that is, because despite writing this Magnificat at an early age C.P.E. Bach revived this piece on several occasions during his career…and, like his father, recycled a lot of the movements into other sacred works of his.
Regardless, it stands as one of C.P.E. Bach’s greatest works – with many touches that suggest that the son learned well from his father…starting with the sound of the joyous natural trumpets at the opening of the piece. But you’ll also hear suggestions of the great choral works yet to come by Haydn and Mozart. And how’s this for a little piece of history, courtesy of music scholar Jason B. Grant, who happens to be working on publishing the complete works of C.P.E. Bach this tricentennial year:
That C.P.E. Bach thought highly of his Magnificat is shown by his including it in a concert of 1786, a program which included the Credo of his father’s B Minor Mass, portions of Handel’s Messiah, and his own double-choir “Heilig.” Although it was a work from much earlier in his career, Bach clearly valued the Magnificat as a composition that could stand alongside not only his later Hamburg works, but also the great choral masterpieces of the previous generation
Check out these three sections in a very spirited performance by Czech-based Visegrad Baroque Orchestra, (“Barbara Maria Willi founded in 2006 Visegrad Baroque Orchestra in order to engage in collaborative work most talented musicians in Visegrad countries: Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Czech Republic”) and the Ars Brunensis Chorus,
There are all kinds of terms to describe the period of history in between the Baroque era of Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel, and the dawning of the so-called “Classical Era” personified by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. “Rococo,” “Style Galant,” or to get really German-geeky about it, Emfindsamer Stil:
A musical aesthetic associated with north Germany during the middle of the 18th century, and embodied in what was called the ‘Empfindsamer Stil’. Its aims were to achieve an intimate, sensitive and subjective expression; gentle tears of melancholy were one of its most desired responses.
The above is taken from a surprisingly entertaining site I discovered called Musical Inclinations – “an online resource examining the differences between the pre-classical and classical style.”
Or you could just listen to this wonderful example of a C.P.E. Bach concerto that sits at this crossroads of history: A Double Concerto for the new-fangled fortepiano, and the old-fangled harpsichord. And, as it turns out, the very last of the 50-odd concertos he composed between 1733 and 1788. And, as pianist Danny Driver mused in the NPR story the other day, “It’s literally, from the very first movement, one bar piano, one bar harpsichord, a little bit of orchestra, then something else. The exchange of ideas is so quick….it’s not postmodern, but it almost feels postmodern in the sense that there’s this sort of collation of different ideas and different feelings all sort of rolled into one. I think it’s of today as it was of its time.”
Here’s another keyboard delight from C.P.E. Bach, this time a live concert performance by pianist Marc-André Hamelin, he of the ferocious talent, and seemingly limitless repertoire and musical curiosity. Check out the transition into the second movement at c. 6:00, where in the words of one of the YouTube commenters, “Dad walked in.” And another reminder of what I find so appealing about J.S.’s second son: How he, in the words of German musicologist Roman Hinke, “disregards all calls for an evenly balanced symmetry.”
As promised, some favorites by the vastly underrated second (and in my opinion, most interesting) son of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose 300th birthday is being observed this year.
For me, any discussion of inspired recordings of CPE’s works starts with Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev’s recording of C.P.E.’s Keyboard Sonatas. This CD, along with Pletnev’s inspired reading of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, are close to being Desert Island Discs for me. Pletnev recorded them in the mid-late ’90s, and shortly afterward stopped giving recitals and playing much in order to concentrate on conducting the Russian National Orchestra. (Though word has it that he’s recently gone back to playing a few select gigs in London and Switzerland….)
What I like about both discs is the way that Pletnev seems to cut through the sentimentality and preciousness that seems to affect/infect a lot of performances from this era, and uncover the passion and emotion that is embedded in the music. That, and the flashes of innovation, schizophrenia, and downright wackiness that is characteristic in music of this era, especially in the hands of CPE Bach. On the one hand, he’s championing the old man’s legacy and Baroque ideals; on the other, he’s busting out and bending and twisting these tried-and-true forms into new shapes.
Check out “Side 1 Cut 1” on the disc:
The Sonata No. 17 in G minor. It starts out like he’s paying homage to the old man’s great Rage Over a Lost Penny?)
If his last name were not Bach, J.S.’s eldest son might have a bigger reputation today. Over the years my admiration for his body of work HS only grown – a proud upholder of the old man’s tradition and legacy, yet his works are fresh, funny, stormy, and at times breathtakingly innovative. Might have to post a few of my favorites to demonstrate. But for today, enough to tip our hats to the shade of “The Great Bach”
Here’s the official “CPE Bach 300” website
Start | C. P. E. Bach 1714-2014