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Hyperion Records

CDA67995 - Bach (CPE): Württemberg Sonatas
Reclining male nude supported on left arm, looking upwards by Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779)
Courtesy of the Martin von Wagner Museum, University of Würzburg
Recording details: January 2013
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Tim Oldham
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: January 2014
Total duration: 76 minutes 5 seconds


'The playing here is miles away from the clangorous, congested sound once so typical of harpsichord recitals, denounced by Sir Thomas Beecham as like listening to ‘copulating skeletons’ … hopefully, we will get more new recordings from Esfahani. I’d love to hear him in some of Emanuel’s many keyboard concertos' (The Mail on Sunday) » More

'The elusive fusion of thematic intricacy, 'Baroque' rhetoric and 'proto-Classical' Sturm und Drang offered by the instrument are caught perfectly by Esfahani's supple touch and disarming sense of rhetorical pacing' (Gramophone) » More

'Esfahani's first solo disc provides a particularly welcome introduction onto the world stage for an artist matching, in 'expression', CPE Bach himself' (BBC Music Magazine) » More

'Esfahani's debut solo recording is of music that, appropriately enough, boldly breaks rank in pursuit of new ideals. C. P. E. Bach’s six keyboard sonatas … are models of the unconventional, exploratory in many respects, and exemplars of the empfindsamer Stil that gave voice to the expressive concerns of a number of European composers in the mid-eighteenth century … Bach’s guiding interest in the artistic sensibilities that produced such movements as Sturm und Drang is clearly evident in music of frequently changing mood and affekt, and it is this sense of the unsettled, of not quite knowing what’s being aimed for or where the music is heading, that makes his music at once so interesting and so difficult to interpret well … The many sudden dynamic changes in the ‘Württemberg Sonatas’ Esfahani has to achieve on the harpsichord through changes of manual or by adding or subtracting registers, and the sureness with which he does it, especially mid-phrase and at speed, with barely a breath between them, is impressive … The ‘Württemberg Sonatas’ … need a virtuoso interpreter not only to bring off the more showy aspects of the writing—which Esfahani does with strong-fingered assurance—but also to make sense of the inherent strangeness of other parts of the music. The opening movement of No. 6 is an operatic scena in all but name, a recitative keenly characterized by tonal contrast as well as by-phrases that peter out with little real continuity or resolution. In lesser hands the movement would fall to bits, but Esfahani makes coherence out of apparent incoherence, manages to get the music to hang together and establishes dramatic momentum, displaying an authoritative understanding of Bach’s rhetoric … As for his playing, in the best sense it is anything but unpredictable: sure-minded and vividly realized, it holds the attention with ease and is a pleasure to hear. This is an excellent recording and it can be thoroughly recommended' (International Record Review) » More

'In this winning performance by the young American-Iranian harpsichordist, one is taken aback by the avant-garde effects and abrupt changes of tempo and mood. The sound of his instrument—a reproduction based on models by the Berlin court harpsichord-maker Michael Mietke (d 1719)—enjoys a wide-ranging spectrum of timbres in Esfahani’s dexterous hands, but it is the verve of his allegros and the affecting pathos of his slow movements that mark him out as a special interpreter of this fascinating composer’s music in his tercentenary year' (The Sunday Times) » More

'Technique extraordinairement réactive, sens inné du son, sensibilité merveilleusement communicative : un tel rayonnement est chose rare … dans sa notice, Esfahani se livre à une analyse des mouvements extrêmement argumentée, qui témoigne d’une maturité saisissante. On a rarement entendu un Bach aussi près du texte et pourtant si libre, sidérant d’aisance dans les pages brillantes et débordant de tendresse dans les adagios.

L'Adagio non molto de la Sonate en si mineur résume le propos : la mélancolie tente de s'étourdir dans une feinte agitation, les silhouettes de Fiordiligi ou de la Comtesse se dessinent sous nos yeux. L’instrument (d’après Mietke) est particulièrement intéressant. Il combine les traditionnelles vertus de la facture allemande (timbre luthé, aigu merveilleusement vocal) et un registre médium d'une richesse expressive dont Esfahani joue en expert' (Diapason, France) » More


Württemberg Sonatas
Württemberg Sonatas, Wq49
Moderato  [4'40]
Andante  [3'13]
Allegro assai  [3'35]
Un poco allegro  [5'10]
Adagio  [3'27]
Allegro  [4'30]
Allegro  [6'03]
Adagio  [4'12]
Vivace  [3'39]
Un poco allegro  [4'19]
Andante  [3'42]
Allegro  [4'29]
Allegro  [5'22]
Adagio  [3'23]
Allegro assai  [3'27]
Moderato  [5'00]
Adagio non molto  [4'22]
Allegro  [3'32]

‘This Iranian-American has carved out a niche as his instrument’s leading champion … his success is founded on remarkable artistry’ (International Piano)

‘Such virtuosity and disarming presentation suggests that Esfahani could inspire a whole new appreciation of the instrument’ (The Guardian)

Hyperion is delighted to present the debut recording of the wonderful young harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. He was the first harpsichordist to be named a BBC New Generation Artist or to be awarded a fellowship prize by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust.

Here Mahan Esfahani has recorded CPE Bach’s six ‘Württemberg’ sonatas, which were written in 1742–3 and published in 1744, and his thrillingly intense performances make the best possible case for this dramatic, beautifully written, endlessly imaginative but for some reason under-performed music. The sonatas range stylistically from initial stirrings of Sturm und Drang in keyboard music to sublime imitations of the human voice, with nods to the High Baroque and the idiom of CPE Bach’s more famous father. Mahan writes in his booklet notes that ‘Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach makes the most combative statement possible to assert his new musical language’.

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The music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach provides valuable food for thought when considering the overly simplistic divide between the ‘Baroque’ and ‘Classical’ periods, itself resulting from a modern standardization of performed repertoire. According to the most simplified form of this view, the Baroque is meant to end with the death of J S Bach—an atypical composer for the period in any case—in 1750, and then the Classical Age comes to maturity with the later symphonies and quartets of Haydn sometime around 1770. To deal with the messy period in-between a host of often unsatisfactory and stopgap terms have been invented: ‘transitional’, ‘Rococo’, and—the worst of them—‘pre-Classical’.

So what are we to make of C P E Bach’s ‘Württemberg’ sonatas? Written in 1742–3 (and published in 1744, with a dedication to the composer’s former student the Duke of Württemberg), before J S Bach had composed a number of his important late works, they are too well written, too convincing and too beautiful to be categororized merely as manifesting a transition from one great period to another. How do we account for the fact that the musical language of these sonatas is so completely different from that of the High Baroque which supposedly had another six or so years to flourish? Are our categories even relevant? Have we decided to ignore some truly great music because of our inability to question our simplified model of music history? Simply put, what are we missing out on?

With the first sonata in the collection, the Sonata in A minor, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach makes the most combative statement possible to assert his new musical language. The opening melody of the first movement could just as well be a brash violin solo by Vivaldi, so fresh and piquant is its flavour. So ambitious is its scope that in fewer than three bars the soprano voice twice spans the range of an eleventh. In true Sturm und Drang fashion, mood swings define the basic logic of the movement, as fiery magic is juxtaposed with moments of almost saccharine sweetness. Immediately before a recapitulation of the principal theme, Bach uses a melodic fragment based on a rising arpeggio accompanied by increasing dissonance in the left hand, thus creating the impression of a rising crescendo in a manner maximizing the harpsichord’s properties. The following Andante could almost be a transcription from a chamber work, a trio for two treble instruments and an accompanying bass. The spirited third movement makes as revolutionary a statement as the first, and is defined by a sense of animalistic turbulence. The driving pulse of the opening bars is met halfway through the first (repeated) section by a daring descending cascade of semiquavers, which then forms the chief idea of the conclusion of each half. The result is a work of stunning brilliance. Perhaps Emanuel had in mind the pyrotechnics of Domenico Scarlatti’s already famous Essercizi of 1737, which he could easily have ordered from Paris.

In contrast to the fiery tones of the first sonata, the Sonata in A flat major reveals C P E Bach’s gift for imitating the nuances of the human voice through the medium of the harpsichord. A rising opening melody is followed by a quick second theme whose intensity acts as a contrast to the virtual trio of singers heard at the beginning. Bach’s uniquely wayward musical personality is evident at certain points, such as the ending of the first half of the first movement when the music moves into a minor tonality and the emotionally charged cantabile is given dramatic impetus by the use of dissonance. Contrasts of mood are further explored in the second movement, a touching piece where the flittering between unrelated motifs almost ‘decomposes’ into quasi-recitative. Bach’s literary influences are apparent here, as he blurs the line between prosody and poetry. A sense of declamation is again evident in the final Allegro. Here the master of the intense and dramatic shows us that he has an equally developed sense of humour. What this lively dance for the fingers lacks in ‘Bachian’ counterpoint it gains in a very different kind of interplay—namely, that of timbres and Affekts.

In the first movement of the Sonata in E minor Bach plays upon the listener’s expectations of the behaviour and role meant to be played by a ‘principal theme’. What is the main theme of this movement? The bizarrely jagged gestures of the first five bars? Or the strings of repeated quavers, with arabesques imitated between the two hands, and relentless sighs that follow? Must a movement even have a definable principal theme? This ambiguous sense of motivic papillonnage is further explored in the middle Adagio in which the opening four-bar theme is ingeniously extended through an exploration of the contrasting colours afforded by the harpsichord’s two manuals. There follows a beautifully wrought Vivace in 3/8 time. More than any other movement in the Württemberg set, this movement calls upon the German manner of virtually carving melodies out of hard stone, in contrast to the light pastels and varied brushstrokes of Italian and French music. This is a dance of death, a true Totentanz of the Enlightenment, portraying a restless dancer accompanied by the most sinister Greek chorus of antiquity. Each half of the movement gives way to a fleet coda in which each semiquaver is possessed by a diabolical delight in the dissonant and the bizarre.

If the first and third sonatas of the Württemberg set represent the initial stirrings of Sturm und Drang in keyboard music, then the Sonata in B flat major is the apotheosis of all that is sublime and charming. Lest we think that such qualities lack profundity, we should remember that the ‘sublime’ was, in its most seemingly effortless guise, a trait highly sought after by composers of this time. The opening theme has nothing of the angular gestures associated with German music, but possesses the easy clarity of Bohemian and Slavonic folksong—perhaps C P E Bach heard such music in the homes of his Berlin colleagues, the brothers Franz and Johann Benda. Whatever the origins of such a style, the melodic narrative gives way to playfulness at cadences and other points of structural punctuation, and occasional lapses into ‘sadness’ or sentimentality quickly defer to the lightness of the opening bars.

The second movement uses Baroque fugato as a frame for typically empfindsame melodic sighs. The movement is notable for its marvellous sense of stillness. One recalls Charles Burney’s famous description of Emanuel Bach improvising at the keyboard: ‘[He] looked like one inspired. His eyes were fixed, his underlip fell, and drops of effervescence distilled from his countenance.’

The final Allegro shows Bach’s great sense of wit and timing, as the pauses between phrases are specifically notated. Particularly noteworthy is the novel use of brash melodic leaps and block chords in a manner far removed from the polyphonic cantabile of an earlier generation. These elements of humour and drama were not lost on the young Joseph Haydn, who himself attested that he recognized only Emanuel Bach as his prototype. This should not surprise us—this final movement immediately brings to mind the finale of Haydn’s own F major Sonata, Hob. XVI/23 (1773).

The brilliant Sonata in E flat major is one of the most sunny and extroverted utterances of the mid-eighteenth century. The first movement is characterized by its varied melodic contour, giving the impression of a fish leaping out of the water in the first bar, then falling immediately back in, and on each successive jump leaping and frolicking in a slightly different way. In contrast to this playful first idea, a second theme enters with great pathos, giving way once more to a feeling of elation stated in the most flamboyant manner with descending cascades of notes. Here Emanuel Bach truly shows his mettle as the master of a new aesthetic, as he uses unprepared chords, whether consonant or dissonant, to underline the affective momentum of his melodies. No longer must a composer depend on the Baroque method by which harmonies occur as a confluence of prepared contrapuntal lines.

The second movement’s fugal quality recalls the middle movement of the previous sonata in B flat major. As with that work, the idea of fugue is used as a topos or prop in order to highlight certain emotionally charged intervals, in this case an ascending seventh followed by a descending semitone in the opening theme. Bach uses a secondary theme in running semiquavers to give harmonic momentum and put the first theme into metrical relief.

The splendid third movement combines virtuosity with a cheeky sense for drama as a repeating-note figure propels moments of suspense. The composer makes use of the contrast between the rich lower register of the keyboard and the fast-speaking higher register’s shrill cantabile.

The last of the set to be written, the Sonata in B minor is perhaps the most representative of Emanuel Bach’s Janus-like musical personality, characterized by a tendency to look forward to new developments in musical style while paying homage to the training he received at the hands of his illustrious father. The first movement sets the stage in dramatic fashion with what is essentially an extended recitativo accompagnato as if for solo voice and orchestra (each respectively implied by the composer’s specific indications for piano and forte manuals of the harpsichord). Perhaps Bach had in mind the operas and dramatic scenes of his Berlin contemporary Carl Heinrich Graun, whose celebrated Cesare e Cleopatra had opened the Royal Court Opera in Berlin two years previously. The entire movement is a study in imperfect resolutions and melodic motifs stopping in mid-air. Bach brilliantly manipulates and magnifies the tension by juxtaposing each point of melodic resolution with an immediate musical question mark or pause.

This is followed by a second movement of disarming tenderness. The principal theme is essentially a sequence of sighs, followed by a dotted secondary theme that at first seems wonderfully chirpy but which with each return of the sighs acquires a quality of poignancy. Finally, sadness seems to win the day as the closing bars of dotted rhythms lead us back to the opening Affekt.

The final movement is a perfect two-part invention, the first piece in the entire collection that can be said to belong truly to the High Baroque. With the nearly endless rising modulation in the second half, however, Emanuel seems to be mocking the old style a bit as he follows counterpoint to its most ridiculously over-the-top narrative conclusion. The final eighteen bars, following a fermata, are achieved in a poker-faced manner—technically perfect and cool-headed, but perhaps with a smirk left over from the jokes of the previous bars. Or perhaps there is no ridiculing after all. After a trip to the opera in the first two movements, Emanuel Bach pays tribute to the greatest composer of them all—his father. Maybe he is saying that a two-part invention is ultimately worth more than all the pretty costumes and set designs in the world.

Mahan Esfahani © 2014

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