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Sinfonie in B minor, H661 Wq182/5


Recalling his pre-Hamburg symphonies in a short autobiography in 1773, Bach wrote that ‘because I have had to compose most of my works for specific individuals and for the public, I have always been more restrained in them than in the few pieces that I have written mainly for myself.’ How delighted he must have been, then, when that same year he received a commission from Baron Gottfried Van Swieten, the music-loving Austrian Ambassador to Berlin who was later to be such a creatively influential supporter of Haydn and Mozart, for a set of six new string symphonies in which he was urged to give his imagination free reign ‘without regard to the difficulties of execution’.

Van Swieten would have known that the result would be symphonies in the fervently emotional and unpredictable style cultivated at that time by composers in northern Germany and known as Empfindsamkeit (roughly translating as ‘ultra-sensitive’), a style in which Bach had already shown notable mastery in his solo keyboard works; and he would probably have expected it to be further enlivened by the turbulent, mainly minor-key spirit of Sturm und Drang (‘storm and stress’) that was at this time affecting composers in many parts of Europe, most memorably Haydn. But even Van Swieten must have been amazed by the vivid originality of Bach’s response. Here are the nervy extremes of expression—thrust at us in affecting melodies, angular lines, jarring key-changes, febrile dynamic contrasts and lurching changes of direction—that mark Bach out as a composer of urgent individuality. Symphony No 5 starts out with a melody which is somehow both elegant and tense, and further underminings by scrabbling unison lines and threatening full-orchestral chords ensure that the mood never feels entirely comfortable. The second movement breaks in unexpectedly to bring a more settled melancholy, but this is soon swept aside as the finale pitches headlong into further agitation.

from notes by Lindsay Kemp © 2015


Bach (CPE): Symphonies
Studio Master: SIGCD395Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


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