Friday 28 February 2014

New performances of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s six Hamburg Symphonies engagingly played by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra conducted by Wolfram Christ

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) is often called the father of the symphony and it was certainly he that took the symphony from its modest proportions to the great four movement works that were later achieved. 

However, it was Giovanni Battista Sammartini (c.1700-1775) who was among the first to write what might be termed concert symphonies, moving away from their origins as overtures. Composers as diverse as Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), Gaetano Pugnani (1731-1798), Matthias Georg Monn (1717-1750), Georg Christoph Wagenseil (1715-1777), Florian Leopold Gassmann (1729-1774, Carlo d’Ordonez (1734-1786), Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813) and Michael Haydn (1737-1806) all contributed in their time to the genre; some of whose symphonies approached the classical sonata form techniques.

At Mannheim there were new developments in orchestral style particularly by the striking use of dynamics. It was Johann Stamitz (1717-1757), Franz Xaver Richter, Carl Stamitz (1745-1801), Franz Ignaz Beck (1734-1809) and Ignaz Fränzl (1736-1811), that influenced the development of the symphony in the mid to late 18th century.

Two of Bach’s sons, Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782) and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) also took to the form, J.C. Bach writing over 40 symphonies.

Although he composed much of his music for the keyboard, Carl Philipp Emanuel wrote some 20 symphonies of which his six Hamburg Symphonies feature on a new release from Hänssler Classic performed by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra  conducted by their principal guest conductor Wolfram Christ  

CD 98.637

Founded by Karl Münchinger in 1945, the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra plays on modern instruments, but pays due regard to authentic performing style. Since the days of Münchinger the orchestra has been conducted by some of the leading conductors such as Trevor Pinnock, Helmuth Rilling, Frans Brüggen and Vaclav Neumann. Since 2006, Michael Hofstetter has been the orchestra’s principal conductor.

In March 1768, leaving his post of harpsichordist to the Prussian King Frederick and already established as Europe’s most famous keyboard player, Carl Philipp Emanuel, took up his new position as Kantor and Music Director in Hamburg.

Among the musical visitors was Gottfried van Swieten, Austrian ambassador to the Prussian Court for whom the composer, 1773, wrote his six Hamburg Symphonies, Wq.182 for string orchestra. van Swieten was responsible for these works being performed in Vienna where they later became a source of inspiration to Mozart.

Sinfonie in G major, Wq.182 No.1 (H.657) has many Haydnesque turns and dynamics in the Allegro di molto with crisp, lively playing from this small band. The fortepiano continuo may not be to everyone’s taste though there is much historical evidence for its use in late 18th century orchestral music. Haydn was certainly known to direct his symphonies from the fortepiano when in London. The Poco adagio has nicely pointed up rhythms and is full of surprises. This orchestra have very much absorbed period practice in terms of tempi and vibrato which, with just eighteen players, makes a nicely transparent texture. The symphony concludes with a lithe and buoyant Presto.

CPE Bach again throws himself straight into the Allegro di molto of the Sinfonie in B flat major, Wq.182 No.2 (H.658) with playing of great verve, with fine control of dynamics in this music, full of invention and surprise. Bach certainly wanted to keep his audience’s attention. The Poco adagio brings another fine slow movement where the theme us underlined by pizzicato basses. There is more, fine playing from the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra in the playful Presto, full of little twists and turns and where the fortepiano, to my ears, merely adds to the enjoyment of the performance.

Sinfonie in C major, Wq.182 No.3 (H.659) opens with a direct, swirling, rising and falling theme in the Allegro assai before which there are more twists and turns to keep the listener on their toes. There is a terrific transition into the Adagio, a sad melody that, nevertheless, has occasional dramatic moments. An attractive, lightly rhythmic Allegretto concludes this work, where sections of the orchestra seems to answer each other creating an attractive effect.

A really fine and intricate theme opens the Allegro ma non troppo of the Sinfonie in A major, Wq.182 No.4 (H.660), one of Emanuel Bach’s most attractive ideas. The Largo ed innocentemente has some lovely long drawn phrases with the Stuttgart players on fine form before the vibrant Allegro assai sweeps all aside.  

The Allegretto of the Sinfonie in B minor, Wq.182 No.5 (H.661) brings more of Emanuel Bach’s fine invention and varying dynamics, well caught by these players. An affectingly fine Larghetto, beautifully played by this orchestra, has some lovely string sonorities with the Presto providing more fine playing with incisive string phrasing.

The Allegro di molto of the Sinfonie in E major, Wq.182 No.6 (H.662) is another energetic allegro which receives crisp decisive playing with some terrific ensemble. There is a lovely flowing Poco andante, where the players give more lovely sonorities and an Allegro spiritoso where there is firm, rich playing in the incisive rhythms to bring this disc to an end.

The Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra are obviously in good hands with Wolfram Christ providing such lithe and exhilarating performances that bring many rewards.

Those who must have period instrument performances may look towards recordings such as those from Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert on Deutsche Grammophon. However, these new performances on modern instruments so engagingly played will appeal to many.

The recorded acoustic occasionally seems a little hollow but there is ample detail. There are informative booklet notes.

Coincidentally, CPE Bach is BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week from next Monday (3rd March 2014 to 6th March 2014)


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