Sunday 2 June 2013

An engaging disc full of memorable music from Miklós Spányi and Concerto Armonico on BIS in Volume 19 of their CPE Bach keyboard concerto series

Earlier this month I reviewed a recording of keyboard sonatas by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-1784) the eldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach by his first wife Maria Barbara, whose later instability prevented him achieving his potential.

There were no such problems for Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), the younger brother of Wilhelm Friedemann by four years. He went on to become the most famous and most prolific son of Johann Sebastion Bach (1685-1750). One of Carl Philipp Emanuel’s godfathers was Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) and was only nine when his father became Kantor of Leipzig Thomasschule. Carl Philipp Emanuel always made it clear that his only teacher was his father. He appears not to have seriously studied any instrument other than the keyboard, being able to play his father’s pieces at sight by the age of eleven.

Carl Philipp Emanuel studied law at Leipzig University and later at the University of Frankfurt, where, his studies completed, he stayed for a while supporting himself by giving keyboard lessons, composing and directing concerts. In 1738 he received an offer from the Crown Prince of Prussia, later to become Frederick II of Prussia, to become his harpsichordist in Berlin. Carl Philipp Emanuel stayed in the service of Frederick the Great for nearly thirty years. He later remembered that he ‘had the honour of accompanying in Charlottenburg, alone at the harpsichord, the first flute solo played by Frederick as king.’ There exists a famous painting by Adolph von Menzel (1815-1905) in the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin of a candlelit musical evening where Carl Philipp Emanuel and a few other musicians accompany Frederick as soloist.

In 1768 Carl Philipp Emanuel, now 54 years of age and the most famous keyboard player and teacher in Europe took up a new position in Hamburg as Kantor of the Johanneum and director of music at the five principal churches, succeeding his godfather, Telemann. His responsibilities were colossal in that he had to provide around 200 musical performances annually between the five churches, including ten Passions within 13 days).

However, Carl Philipp Emanuel thrived on all this activity and even found the onerous administrative duties relatively easy. One of the visitors to his home in Hamburg was the Austrian Ambassador to Prussia, Gottfried van Swieten (1733-1803) who was later responsible for performances of Carl Philipp Emanuel’s music in Vienna, becoming a source of inspiration for Mozart.

Another link between Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and the later tradition of Mozart and Beethoven was Beethoven’s teacher, Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-1798), who was a great admirer of Carl Philipp Emanuel whose works were basic to his teaching of Beethoven.

By the time that Carl Philipp Emanuel died on 14th December 1788, such was his fame that Haydn, returning to Vienna from London, stopped at C P E Bach’s house hoping to meet him. Sadly it was too late.

It is this link between the keyboard concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach and those of Mozart and Beethoven that makes Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s works in this form so important.

Back in 1995, BIS Records started recording the complete Keyboard Concertos of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach with the Hungarian organist and harpsichordist, Miklós Spányi , who has himself edited several volumes of C.P.E. Bach’s solo keyboard music. The latest release, Volume 19, as with all in this series, features Concerto Armonico, Budapest, directed by Spányi.

BIS 1957

All the concertos on this disc are fairly late works, dating from his time in Hamburg.  Carl Philipp Emanuel’s Concerto in G major Wq 43/5 dates from 1772, the first movement of which is marked Adagio – Presto. Miklós Spányi plays a harpsichord built in 2007 by Michael Walker of Neckargemünd, Germany after Joannes Daniel Dulcken, Antwerp 1745 with the addition of a swell device. Spányi opens with a short languid adagio before the vibrant presto arrives with some terrific playing, full of vibrancy and clarity. Concerto Armonico are spot on with terrific ensemble and crisp playing. Just before the end there is C P E Bach’s own little cadenza. The short Adagio repeats the opening of the first movement before developing the material in this lovely movement, made especially attractive by Spányi’s sensitive playing and a gorgeous instrumental sound from Concerto Armonico. The lively Allegro dances forward with an appealing joyfulness. Spányi is excellent, combining detail and a feeling of forward flow, with nicely sprung rhythms. This is such an attractive theme that sticks in the mind.

The Walker harpsichord is used in the Concerto in C major Wq 43/6 (1772), the Allegro di molto of which opens with Concerto Armonico and the lovely sound of the natural horns. There is an attractive musical conversation between harpsichord and ensemble as this terrific allegro rolls along. Spányi, directing Concerto Armonico, play so well together with great ensemble. Towards the end of this movement there is the composer’s own cadenza, brilliantly played.  A somewhat serious Largetto follows where the harpsichord shares the theme with the ensemble, Spányi drawing out much feeling before the movement suddenly comes to an end.  A confident Allegro sweeps away any gloom with an opening for instrumental ensemble. When the harpsichord enters, in this steadily paced, flowing allegro it is clear that Spányi really has the measure of this piece with his tempo contrasting with the first movement allegro di molto. Again there is Carl Philipp Emanuel’s attractive dovetailing of harpsichord and orchestra and a lovely hushed section near the end.

In the Concerto in G major Wq 44 (1778) Spányi opts for a 1798 Broadwood fortepiano. In his booklet note on the choice of keyboard instruments, Spányi takes note of the keyboard textures of Wq 44 and its suitability for the fortepiano. Carl Philipp Emanuel may well have used either a harpsichord or fortepiano but, in this performance, the choice of fortepiano certainly pays off, with the distinctive sound of the instrument coming through the orchestral texture right from the start of the Allegretto. The Broadwood has a fine articulation in Bach’s rapid notes, in this attractive opening movement. What also works so well is the sense of drama between fortepiano and ensemble, surely anticipating Beethoven, though with a Mozartian keyboard flow. There is a terrific little solo before the coda. A leisurely Andantino follows, that shows off some of the Broadwood’s lovely timbres with some fine playing from Spányi, who himself provides an attractive cadenza. The Allegro suddenly opens, with a lively little motif on the fortepiano before the orchestra soon joins to develop the theme, progressing with lovely little fits and starts.

Spányi seems to have had to decide between harpsichord and fortepiano for the Concerto in D Major Wq 45 (1778), either of which were probably used by the composer. Spányi settled on the Walker harpsichord again, mainly because of its swell device that makes subtle dynamic variations possible. There is an instrumental opening to the Allegretto with some lovely sounds from Concerto Armonico, with the harpsichord subtly joining. Again there are those lovely natural horns sounding through. Spányi’s phrasing is spot on yet never losing the flow. The harpsichord does have the advantage of greater clarity with a sense of flow and articulation in this attractive allegretto. There is a terrific cadenza brilliantly played by Spányi.  A quiet and gentle Andantino follows where Spányi uses so much of the harpsichord’s various sounds to great effect. A really vivacious, lively Allegro has Spányi and Concerto Armonico providing superb playing, at turns mellow and flowing then dynamic and gutsy.

This is an engaging disc full of memorable music as well as pointing towards the developments of concerto form. The recording is first rate and there are excellent booklet notes.

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