August 11, 2013

C.P.E. Bach Keyboard Sonatas

CPE Bach - Keyboard Sonatas/Chaplin cover art
It’s quite fascinating how so-called transitional musical figures seem less accessible, and therefore familiar, to the average public, where compartmentalization of style can be a comfort (or, at the very least, a key that unlocks pocketbooks), while closer inspection reveals these trailblazers often went much farther than their descendants -- often a century or more of future innovations are housed within their curious experiments.

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It’s as if their immediate followers can digest only the skeletal framework, but not the true implications, of what they hear. More likely, these descendants prefer to plant in measurably fertile soil, particularly where the public is concerned, rather than take a flyer on aspects which surely must have intrigued them. Or, are these in-between artists able to usher in paradigm shifts precisely by being so far advanced in possibility, so courageous in ignoring populism, they were able to wake entrenched styles from their dogmatic slumber?

We’ll leave these interesting questions to philosophers, essayists and cultural anthro-sociologists, and instead thoroughly test the transitional-figure-as-genius hypothesis by diving into the deep, inexhaustible trove that is the music of Carl Philipp Emanuel (C.P.E.) Bach, papa Bach’s second son by wife #1 and, by noting a budget label release as a primary example, perhaps nudge Mr./Ms. Average Classical Fan toward a greater acceptance of his often prickly art.

C.P.E. was certainly the most prodigiously talented amongst J.S. Bach’s dozens of offspring, and clearly influenced two primary figures of the Classical Period, namely Mssrs. Haydn and Mozart, above any other composer with respect to keyboard practice, through not only his music, but also his still-valid Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments published in 1753.

By utilizing shorter themes, elastic motifs that could be more easily shaped, C.P.E. moved away from the increasingly staid (at least in the public view) contrapuntal practice of his father toward a homophonic style with surprising turns in tempo, mood and key, allowing for an Empfindsamkeit or "intimate expressiveness, " most salient, at least with respect to his keyboard output, in the hushed, often stark slow movements which, despite their intensity of purpose, had a moment-by-moment improvisational quality unheard of in most compositions of the period, while still retaining their gallant underpinnings.  When hearing modern composers’ neoclassical output, as in many Martinů concerti, one can’t help but think of C.P.E. Bach’s works for similar instrumentation.

But as we’re focusing today on C.P.E. Bach’s solo keyboard output, let’s turn to the splendid 1998 Naxos recording on piano by François Chaplin of select Keyboard Sonatas. It’s hard to imagine a more forthright proponent of these works which, unlike the typical boxy Naxos keyboard sound, were recorded with a gorgeous roundness of tone.

The first work on the disc, the Sonata in G major (H. 56, Wq. 65/22), has an almost Schubertian opening, with block chords alternating with shorter, expressive phrases, while the slow movement which follows has a pensive, nearly secretive quality making the quick-paced finale all the more exuberant via contrast.  Next we have a work in A major (H. 174, Wq. 65/37) with an initial Allegro approaching Haydn in its austere simplicity, yet boasting a closing (Allegro di molto) that likely impressed a young Beethoven with the surprising twists and turns, as well as florid passage work.

The third work, again in A major (H. 133, Wq. 70/1), sports another expressive, often childlike middle movement, while the Sonata in B flat major (H. 116, Wq. 62/16) opens with an extended Allegro of great contrast, peppered with ebullient fills and runs.  My personal favorite is the Sonata for keyboard in E minor (H. 106, Wq. 65/30), which leads off with an Allegretto of sustained resignation, rather than melancholy, and finishes with a brash movement laced with staccato, bold leaps and sudden arpeggios, as well as a hint of the contrapuntal as the two hands interweave, marvelously executed by Chaplin.

The final sonata presented, the Sonata for Bogen-Clavier (or “bowed” keyboard) in G major (H. 280, Wq. 65/48), written for an instrument which never achieved widespread use, but sought to approach the sustain capabilities of an organ, spins out an expressive melody that begs for a touch of legato in the opening Andantino.  The only relatively weak work on the disc is a Rondo (E flat major), a work ostensibly designed for amateurs to be acquired via subscription, but that features runs likely out of the reach of the typical home musician.

What holds the disc together is what I’ll call an “elegant intensity” that seems to flirt with Romantic motifs as much as anticipating Classical practice -- one can easily hear pre-echoes of Mozart and (especially) Haydn in the combination of sophistication and expressiveness herein.

While C.P.E. Bach discs, largely keyboard concerti, seem to be flooding the market of late (not a bad idea in my book), the best place for those familiar with the Classical keyboard repertoire may very well be this tasty offering.  I can think of few collections which predict the future of compositional and performance practice with a similar level of near-nonchalant stylishness.

If that seems an odd phrase, so be it, for Carl Philipp Emanuel is nothing if not an outlier, a composer of 18th century music that continues to raise eyebrows even today.

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