Marc-André Hamelin plays CPE Bach

photo credit: Sim Cannety-Clarke

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Writing for Grove Online, Christoph Wolff and Ulrich Leisinger say of J.S. Bach’s second son Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788),

“He was the most important composer in Protestant Germany during the second half of the 18th century, and enjoyed unqualified admiration and recognition particularly as a teacher and keyboard composer.”

C.P.E. Bach’s most enthusiastic admirers included that great triumvirate of the Viennese Classical era, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and of those composers whose careers straddled the transition from Baroque to Classical styles in the mid 18th century, C.P.E. has perhaps left the most extraordinary body of music, especially for the keyboard family of instruments.

C.P.E. Bach composed some 400 works for solo keyboard instruments. Sadly, much of this music fell out of use in the nineteenth century and it is only in recent decades that it has once more found itself championed by performers, the most recent of whom is the Canadian virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin.

Hamelin’s new release from the ever-brilliant Hyperion label is a 140-minute two-CD set showcasing a broad and irresistible range of C.P.E. Bach’s art.

It is surely destined to be recognised as one of the great recordings of the present decade, so join me as I take a closer look at this Pianodao Recording of the Month

A Keyboard Cornucopia

C.P.E. Bach’s solo keyboard output (and incidentally, he also wrote nearly 80 concerti) is dominated by three forms with which he was closely associated: the Fantasia, Rondo and Sonata.

The Fantasias shine a spotlight on the intersection between Baroque and Classical keyboard playing styles, flamboyant improvisatory flourishes rubbing shoulders with stile galant charm.

C.P.E. Bach’s 143 Sonatas stylistically anticipate those of Haydn and even Beethoven. That said, the Sonata in E minor H66 Wq62/12, included here, is more actually a Suite of Baroque dance pieces not dissimilar to those of the composer’s father.

The Rondos, hugely popular in their composer’s lifetime, most obviously showcase Bach’s melodic gift, but their musical intent is far more serious in tone than the later Rondos of Mozart.

Hamelin gives a choice survey of all three of these genres, and includes several other occasional pieces to further season the mix. These include character pieces named in the manner of the French Baroque clavecinists, underlining the point that this Bach was every bit as cosmopolitan as his father.

Here’s the track listing:

Disc ONE

  • Sonata in A minor H247 Wq57/2
  • Rondo in E major H265 Wq57/1
  • Fantasia in C major H291 Wq61/6
  • Sonata in E minor H66 Wq62/12
  • Abschied von meinem Silbermannischen Claviere, in einem Rondo H272 Wq66
  • Arioso with 9 Variations in C major H259 Wq118/10
  • March in G major BWVAnh124
  • Solfeggio in C minor H220 Wq117/2

Disc TWO

  • Rondo in C minor H283 Wq59/4
  • Sonata in F minor H173 Wq57/6
  • L’Aly Rupalich H95 Wq117/27
  • Sonata in D major H286 Wq61/2
  • Sonata in A flat major H31 Wq49/2
  • Rondo in B flat major H267 Wq58/5
  • Sonata in E minor H281 Wq59/1
  • La Complaisante H109 Wq58/5
  • Rondo in E major H274 Wq58/3
  • Freie Fantasie fürs Clavier in F sharp minor H300 Wq67
  • L’Herrmann H92 Wq117/23
  • La Prinzette H91 Wq117/21

Those wholly new to this repertoire may need time to acclimatise to the style, but Hamelin has delivered a truly intoxicating cornucopia of music here, from C.P.E. Bach the approachable (the famous Solfeggio and Rondos) to the more exotic. And among the slower pieces we find the most ravishing treasures of all, which include the beautiful Abschied and the lovely Arioso and Variations, both new to me. Sublime!

The True Art of Playing…

C.P.E. Bach is of course also famous for his classic pedagogic treatise The True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, an instructional resource which is today indispensable as a sourcebook for understanding authentic performance practices of the mid 18th century.

Marc-André Hamelin is ever the scholar as well as the virtuoso, and his interpretations here are informed by a deep understanding of the classical style; while he performs on a modern Steinway grand his playing has grace and élan aplenty alongside the expectedly sparkling pyrotechnics.

In short, Hamelin combining exemplary musicianship with invigorating panache, employing his formidable technique to deliver C.P.E. Bach performances that raise the bar in every respect, both underlining the supple virtuosity of the music and communicating its intimate personal aesthetic.

Captured exquisitely in Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts in January 2021 (by Judith Sherman and Jeanne Velonis), this recording is undoubtedly a milestone, a new benchmark alongside which most other C.P.E. Bach recital discs rather pale.

An absolute gem – don’t miss it!

Recent Recordings of the Month here on Pianodao:

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.