As our attention spans continue to shrink, there’s no better time to bond with the quicksilver music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. A new album of concertos for cello and string orchestra, energetically performed by soloist Nicolas Altstaedt and the British ensemble Arcangelo, flaunts the composer’s sparkling melodies, zigzagging rhythms and shifting moods. It’s also impossible not to love.
The second surviving son of Johann Sebastian Bach, C.P.E. was born in 1714, learned music from his father and, fresh from college, landed a job as keyboardist for Frederick the Great in Berlin, where he stayed for nearly 30 years. In 1768, he finally left Berlin for Hamburg, succeeding Telemann as director of the city’s church music.
Scholars say Bach was an amiable guy, witty with words and an enthusiastic improviser. It all pours out in these three concertos, which, despite following the standard fast-slow-fast, three-movement formula, keep us guessing at what’s around every corner.
The final movement of the B-flat major concerto is like a joyride with a tipsy driver. After the deceptively smooth opening measures, it’s all musical whiplash with brakes slamming, sudden accelerations and collisions with disorienting harmonies.
In the A minor concerto, strings rocket out of the gate with dizzying energy. There’s an abrupt inhale for the cello’s lyrical entrance, but the orchestra insists on interrupting. For the final Allegro, a twitching figure gets volleyed about amid blasts of dissonance—the aural equivalent of wearing orange socks with red slacks.
Alstaedt plays without vibrato. His tone is handsomely svelte, slightly nasal and often as smooth as hazelnut gelato. That’s not to say he can’t dig into Bach’s virtuosic passages with élan. In the B-flat major’s concerto’s Allegretto, Altstaedt trades expressive elegance with frenetic bowing, as if furiously scraping an old house, flakes of paint flying everywhere. For unique coloration, try the Largo from the A major concerto where, playing in a high register, Altstaedt’s instrument takes on the character of a ramshackle squeezebox. Cellist Anner Bylsma may “sing” more in his recording, but the atmospheric effects that the conductor Jonathan Cohen conjures here—muted strings sighing in anguish—are breathtakingly cinematic.
The music’s raw emotions and restless energy deliver both a soundtrack for overstimulated lives and a glimpse of one of the 18th-century’s most cutting-edge composers.