Next month sees the 300th anniversary of the birth of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the most talented of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons.
Emanuel Bach’s 30 years at the court of Frederick the Great, where music really mattered, and his subsequent almost two decades as music director in Hamburg, made him a big name in European music, admired during his lifetime, and revered after his death in 1788.
But the fickle finger of fate is a funny thing. Were we to be transported by time machine to late 18th-century Vienna, and fall into conversation with Mozart or Haydn about ‘the great Bach’, they would assume we meant Emanuel. Were we to reveal to them, that 200 years on it would be old Johann Sebastian who would be thought by many to be the greatest composer of all, they would be astonished.
The sad thing is not that JSB has come into his kingdom, but that Emanuel has been so comprehensively ejected from it: that today, except for the most scholarly, he is little more than a footnote.
This is unfair. Emanuel Bach was far better educated, and far more immersed in European culture, than his dad. The best of his music reflects his personal sophistication, with no shortage of creative genius to turn this wide cultural awareness into excellent pieces that deserve a hearing.
Such as the six Württemberg Sonatas on this new Hyperion album, featuring the truly exceptional, London-based Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani.
Emanuel Bach was not a child prodigy. In his early years he had an each-way bet on his career, spending a lot of time studying law. And it may have been the summons to the Palace of Sanssouci when Emanuel was 26, to become Frederick’s musical major-domo, that finally pushed him into full-time music. These sonatas were written a few years after that and, when printed in 1744, became one of his first published works.
All six are lively and exuberant, full of youthful joie de vivre, and sometimes stunning technical effects, all of which are brought out by Esfahani’s light touch.
It’s also a pleasure to listen to his reproduction Michael Mietke harpsichord, a copy of one that would surely have been played at Frederick the Great’s concerts, where Mietke, until his death in 1719, was court harpsichord maker.
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’. The only downside is that this music has little of the melodic distinction found in old Sebastian’s finest works. Hopefully, we will get more new recordings from Esfahani. I’d love to hear him in some of Emanuel’s many keyboard concertos.