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Hyperion Records

CDA67786 - Bach (CPE): Keyboard Sonatas, Vol. 1
Ideal landscape (1776) by Johann Sebastian Bach (1748-1778)
Hamburger Kunsthalle, Germany / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67786
Recording details: August 2009
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: June 2010
Total duration: 77 minutes 52 seconds

GRAMOPHONE EDITOR'S CHOICE
DAILY TELEGRAPH CLASSICAL CD OF THE WEEK

'Danny Driver, a recent addition to Hyperion's bejewelled roster of pianists, makes his superlative case for music that is as inventive as it is unsettling. Playing with imperturbable authority, he captures all the mercurial fits and starts of the G minor Sonata … it would be impossible to over-estimate Driver's impeccable technique and musicianship, and also a warmth missing from Pletnev's earlier and razor-sharp recital … this is one of the finest of all recent keyboard issues and Hyperion's sound and presentation are ideal' (Gramophone)

'Listening to this extraordinary music, it is easy to understand why the audiences who first heard it in the 1740s were thrilled and bewildered in equal measure … Driver meets the interpretative challenges with a lively mind, dexterity and warm sensibility in a way that brings CPE Bach's startling originality sharply into focus' (The Daily Telegraph)

'With 78 minutes of impeccable pianism, top-drawer recording quality and highly informative notes by Leta Miller, placing these remarkable works in context, this deserves a wide audience' (International Record Review)

'In terms of this selection of CPE Bach’s sonatas, it’s a case of once you start, you’re hooked, something enhanced by playing of clarity, depth and poise, Driver always willing to go with the music’s unpredictability. This is invention at once intellectual and engagingly entertaining, containing the promise of surprise while retaining a secret or two for the next playing. There is an unpredictable logic to these pieces that is very likeable, be it the individual slow movements or the toccata-like faster ones; and whatever CPE Bach demands Danny Driver ensures a comprehensive realisation of these fascinating scores' (ClassicalSource.com)

Keyboard Sonatas, Vol. 1
Allegro  [5'59]
Adagio  [4'32]
Allegro assai  [4'55]
Allegro  [7'22]
Adagio  [4'29]
Allegro  [7'27]
Vivace  [5'51]
Adagio  [4'01]
Allegro assai  [3'02]
Allegro  [6'48]
Adagio  [4'26]
Presto  [2'45]
Poco allegro  [8'15]
Adagio assai  [4'55]
Presto  [3'05]

The pianist Danny Driver has garnered the highest possible praise for his two York Bowen discs on Hyperion. Now, demonstrating his extraordinary versatility, he turns to a composer from a very different age—yet one who has been similarly overlooked by the musical establishment, while always having a place in the heart of connoisseurs of arcane keyboard music.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788), second son of Johann Sebastian, was both revered and criticized by his contemporaries for his bold departures from conventional modes of musical expression. He perfected a highly original and intensely personal compositional style known as the empfindsamer Stil (literally, the ‘sensitive style’). As the works on this recording show, Bach’s approach to musical expressiveness found voice in frequent mood changes, abundant rests and ‘sighing’ motifs, the juxtaposition of contrasting rhythmic figures, deceptive cadences, and dramatic, rhetorical harmonic interjections. Bach became particularly renowned for his ability to improvise fantasias—seemingly free-form, stream-of-consciousness flights of fancy characterized by unmeasured rhythm and distant harmonic excursions. Yet underlying even the most improvisatory of his compositions is a coherent structure.

Emanuel Bach’s music breaks dramatically away from, yet also builds upon, the early eighteenth-century style perfected by his father. His compositions mark one of the first—and among the most inspired—repudiations of the baroque aesthetic, in which a single unified mood dominates each movement. Emanuel Bach composed more than three hundred keyboard works during his lifetime—all of the works on this recording were composed during the 1740s, while in the service of King Frederick II of Prussia.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In 1773 the English music historian Charles Burney cautioned that the works of CPE Bach were ‘so uncommon, that a little habit is necessary for the enjoyment of [them]’. In fact, he claimed, many critics faulted Bach for writing works that were ‘fantastical’ and ‘far-fetched’. Burney, however, then rushed to Bach’s defence. ‘His flights are not the wild ravings of ignorance or madness, but the effusions of cultivated genius. His pieces … will be found, upon a close examination, to be so rich in invention, taste, and learning, that … each line of them, if wire-drawn, would furnish more new ideas than can be discovered in a whole page of many other compositions.’

Indeed, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788), second son of Johann Sebastian, was both revered and criticized by his contemporaries for his bold departures from conventional modes of musical expression. During his years as ‘first harpsichordist’ at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia, and later as music director of the principal churches in Hamburg, Bach perfected a highly original and intensely personal compositional style known as the empfindsamer Stil (literally, the ‘sensitive style’). As the works on this recording show, Bach’s approach to musical expressiveness found voice in frequent mood changes, wide melodic leaps, abundant rests and ‘sighing’ motifs, irregular phrase structures, the juxtaposition of contrasting rhythmic figures, deceptive cadences, and dramatic, rhetorical harmonic interjections. Bach became particularly renowned for his ability to improvise fantasias—seemingly free-form, stream-of-consciousness flights of fancy characterized by unmeasured rhythm and distant harmonic excursions. Yet underlying even the most improvisatory of his compositions is a coherent structure. Bach himself instructed his students to construct such fantasias by first devising a strict harmonic foundation, and he even published an analysis of one of his own pieces in which he presented the skeletal framework lying beneath its surface irregularity.

Emanuel Bach’s music thus breaks dramatically away from, yet also builds upon, the early eighteenth-century style perfected by his father. His compositions mark one of the first—and among the most inspired—repudiations of the Baroque aesthetic, in which a single unified mood dominates each movement. Significantly, however, Bach does not simply contrast two emotional states, as is typical in later Classical works, but rather explores a multitude of affects juxtaposed in close proximity and often set off by rests or dynamic changes. In fact, CPE Bach not only set in motion many of the changes that would become manifest in the music of Haydn and Beethoven, but also looked beyond the Classical period to many of the ideals of the nineteenth century. That is not to say that Bach could not compose works using a more traditional Baroque language. In fact, as we will see, several of the sonatas on this disc illustrate just such compositional versatility.

All of the works on this recording were composed during the 1740s, while Emanuel Bach was in the service of King Frederick II of Prussia—who was not only a feared military potentate, but also a flautist of considerable ability. Bach began working for Frederick in 1738; and soon after Frederick ascended the throne in 1740, Bach was appointed court accompanist, a post he retained for over a quarter of a century. Although the appointment carried prestige, Frederick did not reward Bach with a particularly large salary. His pay, though comparable to that of many of the other court musicians, was less than a sixth that of Frederick’s flute teacher, Johann Joachim Quantz, for example. Frederick’s tastes were extremely conservative and he favoured above all the works of the competent, but far less imaginative Quantz and Carl Heinrich Graun. Bach, in turn, expressed a rather unflattering assessment of the king’s flute-playing, noting especially a disturbing unsteadiness of rhythm. Bach’s tenure at the court was thus marked by a tension that may well be reflected in the style of these early sonatas. After Telemann died in 1767, vacating the position in Hamburg, Bach was finally able to secure a more musically rewarding job.

Emanuel Bach composed more than three hundred keyboard works during his lifetime. His sonatas are mostly in three movements—fast–slow–fast—with the finales tending to be lighter than the first two. Empfindsamer characteristics are most notable in the slow movements.

The earliest three sonatas on the disc—H25, H27 and H29 (Wq48/2, 4, and 6)—appeared in Bach’s first published keyboard collection, the so-called Prussian Sonatas of 1742. The six sonatas in this collection made a major impact on keyboard-writing in Germany and were extolled by several of Bach’s contemporaries and followers, among them Joseph Haydn, who recalled being so entranced when he sat down to play them that he did not leave the keyboard until he had read through the entire set. Modern commentators as well have heralded these works as solidifying a new style of keyboard-writing. Peter Wollny in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2001) takes pains to note that the Prussian Sonatas and the Württemberg Sonatas (published two years later) ‘form a landmark in the history of keyboard music … In these collections Bach systematically, and for the first time, showed how it was possible to write affecting keyboard music freed from the suite tradition.’

The three Prussian Sonatas recorded here show the principal traits of Bach’s music. Movements in the new empfindsamer Stil rub shoulders with more conservative, traditional ones; startling parenthetical insertions evoke surprise and wonder; irregular phrase structures form the foundation of musical invention; and improvisatory influences mark transitional passages.

The opening movements of H25, H27 and H29 all exhibit the most notable characteristic of Bach’s early style. The music’s forward momentum is periodically interrupted by short rhetorical interpolations ranging from one to four bars in length, often marked piano, sometimes set off by rests, and always featuring interchanges of mode or dramatic harmonic discursions. Such interpolations create asymmetrical phrase structures and give the music the ‘quirky’ effect that provoked his contemporaries’ bewilderment. In several instances these interpolated asides could simply be lifted wholesale from the composition, but to do so would be to rob the works of their most poignant and interesting moments.

The opening movement of the A major Sonata H29 is particularly replete with such interjections. An extended rest appears almost immediately—following the first two-bar truncated theme—as if Bach paused during the process of composition to gather his thoughts. In fact, recurrent interpolations seem to govern the movement’s overall structure, forming a kind of compositional logic underlying its surface irregularity. This movement also features another typical Emanuel Bach trait: a repeated-note accompaniment figure (first in the right hand, then in the left) that creates an agitated dominant pedal point.

Rhetorical rests and frequent dynamic contrasts dominate the slow movement of the Sonata in B flat major H25, which also features another common trait of this composer: dotted-rhythm figures functioning as dramatic interjections that recall the accompanied recitatives of Baroque opera. Bach exploits this figuration most dramatically just before the end of the movement, where a diminished seventh chord is repeated in the left hand.

The first movements of both H25 and H27 open with six-bar themes—a phrase structure Bach used not only in his keyboard sonatas but also in his works for other instruments (for example, the flute sonatas he composed for Frederick during this period). Indeed, the six-bar phrase in itself provides a feeling of asymmetry, as it generally arises from the expansion of a four-bar unit through extension at the end (H25) or interpolation in the middle (H27).

Bach felt that an ability to extemporize was a crucial indicator of skill in composition. In fact, he wrote in his influential Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen that one could predict success in composition for anyone with an ability to improvise. The impact of improvisation is apparent in many of the works on the disc, even those that on the surface seem rigidly metrical, a good example being the second reprise in the opening movement of the C minor Sonata H27.

In contrast to the style of these ‘sensitive’ movements several others show Bach’s skill in traditional forms. Among the most conservative, but also the most engaging, is the finale of H27, a virtuosic gigue in a standard rounded binary form. Yet even here Bach’s individual personality is well in evidence, particularly in the second reprise with its delightful two-bar interpolation marked piano and its diversion to a diminished seventh chord lead-up to the half cadence preceding the return. Another retrospective piece is the slow movement of the same work (H27). Here the dominant three-voiced texture evokes the ubiquitous Baroque trio sonata with its disposition of two treble instruments and accompanying bass. Similarly, the finale of the A major Sonata H29 shows Bach’s mastery of Baroque counterpoint. An inspired exploration of the so-called ‘learned style’, it also manifests Bach’s own idiosyncratic language. The insertion on this recording of French Baroque ornamentation on the repeat of each half reinforces the movement’s rococo character.

Unlike the three sonatas from the early 1740s, the Sonata in G minor H47 (Wq65/17) from 1746—perhaps the most remarkable work on this disc—remained unpublished in Bach’s lifetime. The sonata begins with an unbarred fantasia that soon gives way to a strictly metred section featuring running semiquaver triplets in unison in the two hands. The strict metre, however, soon devolves into another unbarred section, after which a startling contrast appears: a galant motif in B flat major. Bach allows none of these motifs to reach a satisfying conclusion, however. Brief reappearances of the galant theme (often accompanied by echo effects) are interrupted by the unison triplets, and the rhythm repeatedly disintegrates into recollections of the fantasia. This extraordinary piece takes the listener on a wild journey into Bach’s ‘fantastical’ world, ending with a half cadence that ushers in a complete change of scenery: the gentle second-movement sarabande in G major. If this slow dance in triple metre, with its characteristic accent on the second beat, reminded Bach’s listeners in some ways of the early eighteenth-century suite, its harmonic excursions, dynamic contrasts, and moments of rhetorical interjection certainly did not. In short, the movement is a perfect example of Bach’s attempts to mould past influences into a new innovative language. The sonata ends with an equally extraordinary Allegro built around a descending chromatic motif whose pitches appear in an almost spasmodic off-kilter rhythm along with interjected higher notes. Several times Bach halts the momentum with rests followed by his typical parenthetical insertions, or with reminiscences of the first movement’s fantasia. The entire sonata presents a stunning example of Bach’s wild, highly eccentric language tempered by his heritage of rationality.

Although the latest sonata on the disc—the E flat major H50 of 1747—exhibits many of the stylistic traits already discussed, its opening movement has a galant character that sets it apart from the other compositions. Here Bach’s language at times becomes almost Mozartian, showing his mastery of the late eighteenth-century aesthetic. Most notable in this sonata, however, is the poignant slow movement, the most stunning example of the empfindsamer style on this recording. Fragmented phrases interspersed with rests and underlaid with frequent contrasts of dynamics characterize the introspective opening eight-bar phrase. The second phrase, in contrast, becomes more continuous, until a melody in dotted-rhythm octaves in the left hand intrudes. These three thematic ideas recur throughout the movement, which ends with an improvisatory flourish leading to a fermata, elaborated on this recording by an extensive cadenza mirroring Bach’s own improvisational inspirations. The sonata then concludes with a virtuosic Presto in 3/8—a perpetual motion corrente recalling the Baroque suite, but filled with Emanuel Bach’s eccentricities.

The slow movement of H50—and similar movements with notated dynamic contrasts—raises the question of the instrument for which Bach’s sonatas were intended. Clearly, much of his work at Frederick’s court involved harpsichord-playing, but the harpsichord could only effect quick dynamic contrasts through the use of a double manual. On the clavichord—an instrument Bach loved and which he used throughout his life—the player could create dynamic changes by variations in finger pressure, but the overall range was restricted to piano or softer. By the late 1740s, however, Frederick had still another keyboard instrument at his court: the fortepiano (a fact made particularly famous by JS Bach’s visit in 1747, on which occasion he improvised a fugue on one of these instruments using a theme provided by Frederick). Therefore, performance of these works by Emanuel Bach himself on the piano is not only possible, but even likely.

The history of Western music is characterized by periodic solidification of compositional norms, followed by rebellions, and then by the establishment of new norms with contrasting aesthetic principles. The rebellious stages—that is, the transitionary years between the stable ‘periods’ designated by later historians—are the most unsettled, but often the most intriguing as well. Like Monteverdi before him and many others after him, Emanuel Bach disrupted the established practices of his past in a search for a new aesthetic expression. In fact, his experimentation with rapid mood change, harmonic surprise, rhythmic variety, and rhetorical outburst anticipates, in some ways, the Romanticism of the nineteenth century even more than the style of his immediate followers in the eighteenth. (Beethoven, for one, was highly influenced by Emanuel Bach, and critics have pointed out the composer’s effect on Schumann as well.) The juxtaposition of these traits with elements reminiscent of Bach’s high-Baroque heritage, however, made his works sit uneasily with many of his contemporaries. Even today, his keyboard music is rarely performed, not because the pieces are unworthy (they are, in fact, astonishing), but because to render them successfully requires a willingness to take risks with tempo, rhythm, articulation and dynamics. Doing so, however, opens up a world of expression that still sounds novel and refreshing, illustrating the richness of invention and ‘effusions of cultivated genius’ Burney heralded more than two hundred years ago.

Leta Miller © 2010


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