Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach had a rather strange career, regarded by many as one of the premiere composers of his age he spent 30 years in a rather lowly position at the court of King Frederick the Great in Berlin. This disc from cellist Nicolas Altstaedt and Arcangelo, conductor Jonathan Cohen, on Hyperion presents three of CPE Bach's major works from the 1750s, his Cello Concerto in A minor H432, Cello Concerto in B flat major H436 and Cello Concerto in A major H439.
In 1774 when the composer JF Reichardt wrote that 'we have only one Bach, whose manner is entirely original and peculiar to him alone', he was referring to CPE Bach rather than the composer's distinguished father (whose music had fallen out of fashion). CPE Bach was much admired by Haydn and Mozart, and his style was very influential on theirs. For nearly 30 years CPE Bach worked as harpsichordist for crown prince Frederick of Prussia (later King Frederick the Great). CPE Bach accompanied the king's flute playing, and wrote galant pieces for the delectation of the court. Music written for his own pleasure, notably a series of keyboard works, gained a reputation for the bizarre and CPE Bach never managed to make his way up the ladder at the Berlin court, never reaching Kapellmeister. He would eventually leave to work in Hamburg where he would have more freedom.
CPE Bach's cello concertos date from the 1750s, written whilst he was in Berlin so presumably they were written for a major cellist at the Berlin court. Richard Wigmore's booklet article names the Italian cellist-composer Carlo Graziani, and the Bohemian cellist Ignaz Mara as being possible, both were active in Berlin at the time, with Mara being the principal cellist in Frederick's chamber ensemble.
In fact, we are not even sure that the works were intended for the cello. CPE Bach's own thematic catalogue lists them for 'harpsichord, two violins, viola and bass; also set for cello and the flute', so it was assumed that the harpsichord versions were the primary ones. In fact Robert Nosow, editor of the new CPE Bach Edition has proposed that all three may have started as cello concertos. Certainly the cello writing is extremely idiomatic, and listening to them you would not imagine that they started out life for another instrument.
CPE Bach's concertos have an important position in the development of the form, as his structures move the concerto from the purely Baroque concertos of his father and Vivaldi, to the more developed forms based around sonata form which were used by Mozart and Haydn. Perhaps the sense that music was in transition at the time has meant that whilst we enjoy concertos by his predecessors and successors, CPE Bach's are relatively neglected.
What is apparent from this disc is that they are terrific works. CPE Bach exploits the whole range of the cello, with the middle and lower registers featuring, and there are many virtuosic passages. Altstaedt's playing is simply stupendous, Jonathan Cohen takes the faster movements at quite a lick and Altstaedt gives us some stunning string crossing, passagework and other virtuoso details.
Instead of the simple call and response structure of baroque concertos, here CPE Bach explores the possibilities in far greater detail so that we have a real sense of narrative dialogue between soloist and orchestra. CPE Bach was part of the Empfindsamkeit movement, moving music (and the other arts) away from the more rational of the previous generation to heightened sensibility. His music is a celebration of pure feeling, which means that even a straightforward Allegro is full of incident and emotional variety, with harmonies disrupting the orderly flow and emotional disturbance.
The concertos are all in three movements with faster outer movements and slower, elegant middle ones. But within this, CPE Bach finds a lovely variety, with singing Andantes and expressive Adagios contrasting with the faster movements. The opening Allegro of the first concerto is pure Sturm und Drang, yet the Allegretto of the second concerto is all galant elegance but here indulges in some interesting development in the middle.
I found this disc completely entrancing, especially as Altstaedt, Arcangelo and Jonathan Cohen really bring out the music's variety and vigour, playing with vividness which is completely engrossing. If you don't know CPE Bach's music then this is a good place to start, and if you do then this recording is essential.