Fitting Celebration for C. P. E . Bach on His 300th Anniversary

United StatesUnited States C. P. E. Bach, J. S. Bach, Mozart, Telemann: Scholar and Lunatic or the Roots of Romanticism, The Four Nations Ensemble,  Salon/Sanctuary Concert Series, Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium, New York, 8.3.2014 (SSM)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach Portrait by Johann Philipp Bach

J. S. Bach: Prelude in C major, WTC Book 1
Mozart:  Fantasia in D minor, K. 397
C. P. E. Bach: Rondo in A minor, WQ 56/5
Sonata for flute & continuo in E minor, WQ 124
Sonata for viola da gamba & continuo in C major, WQ 136
Telemann: Deuxiéme Suite, flute, violin, gamba or cello and continuo
C. P. E. Bach: Sonata II for flute, violin, and continuo in B flat, WQ 161 / 2

Tatiana Chulochnikova, violin
Antonio Campillo, flute
Loretta O’Sullivan, cello
Joshua Lee, viola da gamba
Andrew Appel, harpsichord and clavichord
James Johnson, musicologist

What better day to program a concert around the life and works of C. P. E. Bach than on the 300th anniversary of his birth? He was the second surviving and most successful son of the seven children born to Bach’s first wife and second cousin, Maria Barbara. If we believe that genius can be inherited then C. P. E. and his older brother, Wilhelm Friedemann, received their talents from both parents. The brothers started off with similar potential, excelling in school and at the universities they attended, but W. F. squandered his capabilities on gambling and alcohol. His sometimes wild music has flashes of brilliance as well as a poignant melancholy that at times borders on the bathetic.

This evening’s Salon/Sanctuary concert was more of an event than a simple recital, opening as it did with a conversation between  keyboardist Andrew Appel and musicologist James Johnson on a variety of topics centering on C. P. E. Bach and his times. C. P. E.’s life and works are filled with contradictions (see my interview with C. P. E. Bach specialist Miklos Spányi), and Appel honed in on the difficulty his contemporaries sometimes had in understanding his music. For a time he was highly regarded as a composer of keyboard pieces, “Sonatas for Connoisseurs and Amateurs,” and the Bach of renown, not his father. C. P. E. had a strong need to be recognized as an intellectual and moved in those circles in Berlin and Hamburg. His book on the art of playing the keyboard is still referred to as a major source of keyboard technique.

C. P. E.’s instrument of choice was the clavichord, and he wrote volumes of very personal and introspective music for it. Appel demonstrated what a delicate sound it produces, so soft that even from the front rows it was barely audible. As intimate as the venue was, there was really no way to bring all the audience in close enough to appreciate its sound. The familiar first prelude from J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier required the listener’s memory to fill in unheard gaps. The more dynamic pieces that followed hopefully reached some of the audience. If not, we have at least learned to be sure to get a seat in the first rows at the few clavichord recitals we may attend.

The Rondo Wq 56/5 from “Sonatas for Connoisseurs and Amateurs” is as good an example as any of C. P. E.’s style. This is not a piece to approach lightly, and not a piece that one might want to improve with one’s own ornaments as is done with works by his father. It takes a certain sensibility to craft the right phrasing, timing and touch and to follow the detailed markings that make it very clear what C. P.E. wants. Andrew Appel had the right attitude and the technical finesse to tease the keys to produce the desired effect (or more precisely the correct Affekt).

The resources currently committed to promoting his music, such as the Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: The Complete Works project, mean much has been made available to “connoisseurs and amateurs” alike. The more one hears this music the more one realizes that without C. P. E., Mozart would still have written brilliant scores but not the music that we know today. Every technique imaginable used by Mozart in his piano concerti can be found in one or more of 50+ concerti that C. P. E. wrote for keyboard.  Not to diminish the genius of Mozart’s Fantasia, K. 397, but its uniqueness doesn’t seem as unique having heard similar improvisatory openings, long fermatas, rapid changes in tempo, unexpected key modulations and sudden dynamic outbursts in C. P. E.’s Rondos and Fantasias.

Considering that C. P. E. was flautist Frederick the Great’s personal accompanist for thirty years, there are only a small number of authenticated flute concerti and sonatas. Although these works can be difficult and demanding, especially at fast tempi, they were certainly within the professional level of  Frederick the Great (as we know by the works he himself composed and the 300 or so concerti written for him by his in-house composer, J. J. Quantz). Frederick found out soon after hiring C. P. E. that this young composer couldn’t churn out  ̶  or wouldn’t  ̶  the number of works asked of him. C. P. E.’s flute sonatas in general are written in a more conservative style, so much so that several thought of as having been written by J. S. Bach were probably works by C. P. E.

Antonio Camillio, backed by Loretta O’Sullivan and Andrew Appel on basso continuo, rolled with the rhythmic flow of the Sonata in E minor. This is music that paces itself, music that should not be rushed, and the ensemble quietly let the music carry them to its conclusion. The final Minuetto is a Minuet in name only: the traditional trio section is replaced by two variations on the first theme.

The three Sonatas for viola da gamba show CPE at his finest. Dare I say that they are more interesting, emotionally potent and musically complex than his father’s three (BWV 1027-1029)? Obviously, C. P. E. learned from his father what was needed to write music for this expressive instrument, and he did that and more.  J. S. Bach’s sonatas have mostly been performed by cello and piano to good effect, but few versions of C. P. E.’s sonatas that I’ve heard on modern instruments have captured the expressive quality of original instruments. To be captivated and caught up in this music is to begin to understand the composer’s appeal.

As a respite from the strange world of C. P. E. Bach, the ensemble chose the Deuxième Suite from Telemann’s Paris Quartets. Telemann, a “Renaiassance Man,” was a chameleon capable of changing musical styles. His overtures, suites of dances and chamber music, whether in the French style as here or in the Italian or Polish style, are delightful and convincing imitations of popular dances of the day. They were played with charm and finesse by the ensemble.   The Sonata for flute, violin and continuo that concluded the concert begins with a typical C. P. E. theme, bouncy and slightly off-balance, and although the flute and fortepiano are able to “sing” these notes they are not real singable. The composer plays with these motifs by breaking them up, changing the length of the phrases and moving them across measures into syncopations. Another signature technique of  C. P. E. is the use of simple repeated notes in the bass line, so simple in fact that a first year piano student could play it with ease. This type of harmonic support is so prevalent in his music one could build an argument that, as the son of the greatest proponent of counterpoint, he overreacted in making sure there was as little counterpoint in his music as possible. The middle movement, sensitively played here, is full of melancholy and yearning and leads to a final movement even more playful than the first one.

A fine evening then that made no compromises in the discussion, demonstrations or program, and a birthday party that would certainly have pleased the composer of the day.

Stan Metzger