Juilliard Baroque Celebrates C. P. E. Bach’s 300th + 1 Birthday

United StatesUnited States C. P. E Bach, Juilliard Baroque: Sandra Miller (flute), Cynthia Roberts (violin), Robert Mealy (violin and viola), Phoebe Carrai (cello), Peter Sykes (clavichord and harpsichord), Paul Hall, Juilliard School, New York, 12.9.2015 (SSM)

Trio Sonata for flute, violin, and basso continuo in A Major, Wq. 146
Rondo for clavichord in A Minor, Wq. 56/5
Trio Sonata for two violins and basso continuo in C Minor, Sanguineus und Melancholicus, Wq. 161/1 Fantasia for violin and clavichord in F-sharp Minor, Wq. 80
Sonata for flute and basso continuo in G Major, Wq. 133, (“Hamburger Sonata”)
Quartet for flute, viola, and obbligato keyboard in D Major, Wq. 94


A pleasant corollary for me to a new musical season is the opening performance by the faculty members of the Historical Performance Program at the Juilliard school. This will be the school’s seventh year, and with each year its professional reputation and recognition have grown, resulting in invitations from as close as Boston and as far away as England and Japan.

The first event of the Fall 2015 season was a performance by Juilliard Baroque devoted to the music of C. P. E. Bach. The concert came too late to mark CPE’s 2014 tercentennial year which generated much interest in Europe, but little in the States. The anniversary did give some of the record companies an opportunity to dig down into their libraries and reissue multi-volume sets of his music at a discounted price. There were also several major projects that aimed at completion by 2014. The most important was the publication by the Packard Humanities Institute of Bach’s entire opus. To make his works more readily  available, the volumes have been reasonably priced; they’ve also been digitized and are available for free downloading.

Another important project comes from keyboardist Miklos Spanyi. Spanyi aimed at, but has not yet completed, the recording of all the keyboard sonatas. There are 30 volumes so far, mostly played on the clavichord, but there are at least 10 more albums to go. His 26-volume piano concerto cycle, which he started in 1998, was completed this year. Ana-Marija Markovina has done the nearly impossible job of completing 27 volumes of keyboard music in roughly a year and a half.

The inevitable question that arises  ̶  or should arise  ̶  whenever a clavichord appears on a stage is, “Am I close enough to hear it?” Tonight was no different from other clavichord recitals that I’ve attended. How much you hear depends upon how close you are to the stage, how good (or bad) the acoustics are, and how good your hearing is. I’ve had similar experiences with clavichord recitals, and have several times been frustrated with the lack of audibility. The Rondo for clavichord in A Minor is rife with dynamic markings that suddenly go from loud to soft. I’m sure the composer himself might have appreciated a modern day piano with its ability to articulate and to be fully responsive to the player’s touch.

Peter Sykes’ clavichord was not as soft sounding as others I’ve heard, and the acoustics of the theater are pretty good, so the fortes were audible, but when the pianissimos came the effect was lost. I was a few rows in from the stage, but I imagine no one in the back of the auditorium heard much of anything. For CPE the clavichord was an instrument on which to accomplish two things: mundanely, to write music for sale for an instrument that was readily available; and spiritually, to write music for personal use or for an intimate group of friends and family. Sykes performed the Rondo in A minor with appropriate Emfingdunen, a word that has come to be associated not simply with emotions but also a stronger, passionate state, referred to later as Innigskeit or the “inner world.”

The unusual Fantasia Wq. 80 is better known in its original form without the violin obligatto. Why CPE added the violin is beyond me; the keyboard part certainly stands well enough alone as one of CPE’s many improvisatory pieces. Robert Mealy wisely took a cautious approach, seeming hesitant about sounding any louder for fear of drowning out the substantive keyboard part.

Not all of CPE’s instrumental pieces are melancholic. The Trio for flute, violin and bc was given a perfect reading. Sandra Miller was impeccable on Baroque flute and Cynthia Roberts responded to the flute’s conversation with stylish ease. CPE had a humorous side too: he never completes the cadence at the end of the first movement, leaving the players and listeners up in the air.

The trio for two violins and bc, subtitled Sanguineus und Melancholicus, is a most unusual composition, a shortened version of the struggle between two opposite humors. (Would Bach have known Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, a  pastoral oratorio presented similarly as a conversation between sanguine and melancholic characters?) Like his father, CPE was not a man of the theater and had no interest in opera; this was about the only form of music that he did not conquer. Songs and choral works came naturally to him, but unlike Telemann, his godfather, he never ventured into the burgeoning musical world of opera. This piece of program music was his attempt to prove that one can express ideas through the abstract without visual cues. (It’s not a very convincing argument given the amount of textual detail he felt was needed to explain the emotions each violinist was expressing.)

The instrumentalists gave a convincing argument that CPE’s music, like his father’s, was mainly serious and deeply felt but with moments of delightful abandon. His heart, though, was in the keyboard, and in his solo pieces and concerti we find this composer’s unjustly neglected accomplishments which are slowly being reevaluated.

Stan Metzger

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