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C.P.E. Bach: 5 flute sonatas.

A seemingly homogeneous collection of discs from four of J.S. Bach's sons and their contemporary Johann Schobert turns out to be much more diverse and challenging than one might expect, giving a strong impression of the variety of `preclassical' instrumental repertory (for want of a better epithet). Probably the best-known music here is on C.P.E. Bach: 5 flute sonatas (ASV CD GAU 161, rec 1996), especially the A minor solo, which Nancy Hadden begins with a desolate interpretation of the Poco adagio, the recapitulation a vista of vast emptiness poignantly musing on earlier material. The slow tempo--and the marking is indeed ambiguous--imparts expressive weight and dramatic intensity to one of C.P.E. Bach's most powerful individual movements. The heartfelt quality continues into the Allegro, often played more brilliantly, while even the finale is not as wild as the colourful liner notes imply (`a dance of hobgoblins'), though this is a performance of decided character, with some fantastical moments and the occasional surprising exaggeration. But the predominant impression is one of refinement, with restrained soloistic display from the flautist and subtlety of phrasing that does not press the instrument more than is natural to it. In the sonatas with continuo the flute part threatens to be overwhelmed by the build-up of sonority in the bass; but on the other hand the delicate tones of the clavichord in the G major sonata require rapid adjustment to the intimacy of the music-making, encouraging the most attentive listening. This work and the Zwolf kleine Stucke exude an easy charm that matches the amorous bucolic of the Boucher-school cover illustration--a far cry from the profundities of the solo sonata.

Also shot through with emotional angst is W.F. Bach: Concertos pour clavecin et cordes (Harmonia Mundi, HMC 901558, rec 1995), recorded here by London Baroque with a full string sonority, despite being played by solo instruments. Indeed, it is the richly varied ritornellos that dominate, partly because the harpsichord sound is somewhat reticent, but partly because the delicate empfindsam sensitivity and occasional formulaic patterning of the solo part are less immediately arresting. For the ritornellos certainly seize the attention--in the intensity and sudden interruptions of the outer movements of the A minor, in the impassioned rising suspensions of the Molto adagio of the F major, to mention only the most striking minor key movements. Even the most galant sections in the major mode are prone to divert imperceptibly into darker harmonic regions, as in the Allegro of the D major which settles comfortably in G before a passionate move to F[sharp] minor to prepare the da capo. (It is a Neapolitan relationship of which the composer is particularly fond.) The endlessly inventive working keeps the listener's imagination on edge--and this is not easy music. A particular problem for the (over-aware?) modern listener is the stylistic melange, the kaleidoscope of lyrical homophony, contrapuntal episodes and Baroque figuration alongside empfindsam pathos, quixotic waywardness, explosive interstices. The solo passages share many of the same characteristics, performed here with character and subtlety by Richard Egarr--and in the A minor concerto with a virtuosity that matches the intensity of the surrounding orchestral sections.

Another W.F. Bach set, Polonaises & fantasies (CPO 999 501-2, rec 1996), is less consistently enjoyable, though this is not on account of the music--two freely structured fantasias and the fine set of 12 polonaises that so appealed to 19th-century romanticism (and that justifiably came to wide recent notice with the publication of Andreas Bohnert's edition in 1993). Far divorced from dance forms, these eloquent and variegated character pieces are organized in a systematic key system, ranging from the vigour and charm of the major-key works to the deeply felt affettuoso of the minor (and, in the case of the D minor, the vividly dramatic). But Harald Hoeren's selection of a relatively late fortepiano, modelled on a Heilmann of c. 1785, places the composer in comparison with Clementi; and, though I have often advocated using a fortepiano dated 20 years after the music, in this case the full-blooded vibrancy and violent contrasts seem both over-powerful and yet too easy, avoiding the sense of emotional strain that is inherent in W. F. Bach's aesthetic. The playing is somewhat heavy-handed, the tone a little hard; and, though it is often strongly characterized and brilliant in execution, it ultimately lacks the variety of nuance and natural finesse that would reveal the magic in this remarkable music.

The remaining discs present later, or certainly more `modern' repertory. J.C. Bach: Symphonies op.8 (CPO 999 383-2, rec 1995), a part of the Hanover Band's project to record the composer's complete orchestral music, is something of a mixed bag. Of the three symphonies in Markordt's op.8 not duplicated in Hummel's op.6, the last is the most substantial and sophisticated, with an unusual trio featuring two oboes surrounded by a simultaneous variation in the violins. A symphony in C published by Venier is recorded in two versions, the first containing a particularly heartfelt Andantino for strings alone. Huberty's op.6 no.1 in G presents an earlier and lengthier variant of Hummel's better-known version, reminding us that J. C. Bach sometimes pruned his works for definitive publication. Several of these symphonies here receive their first recordings, with the Hanover Band's playing marked as usual by vitality and elegance of phrasing under Anthony Halstead's direction.

J.C.F. Bach: Sonates en trio (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901587, rec 1995) is organized as a symmetrical medley around a novelty: a genuine duo for cello and piano in classical idiom, lost in World War II and surviving only in a transposed edition of 1905. Charles Medlam makes a rare appearance as cello soloist, the hushed tones of the Larghetto contrasting appealingly with the genial vivacity of the outer movements. Two of the surrounding trios are scored for violin, viola and obbligato piano, pleasingly conversational music written in the aftermath of J.C.F.'s 1778 visit to J. C. Bach in London. The unusual scoring allows varied trio sonata textures denied to the regular piano trio, though of course sacrificing the strengthening of a cello bass line.

More meaty, and an important disc for students of classical keyboard repertory as well as Paris in the 1760s, is The Four Nations Ensemble's Johann Schobert: Four sonatas, op.16 (ASV CD GAU 156, rec 1991). Two of them have been well known since Riemann included them in his Denkmaler deutsche Tonkunst tribute in 1909, highlighting Schobert's transference of the symphonic style to the keyboard sonata; the finales in particular contain invigorating orchestral writing, which is often implied rather than mimicked by keyboard virtuosity. There are suggestions of specific orchestral topics, such as trumpet-and-drum fanfares, and in no.4 a rumbustious Polonaise (the Silesian's trademark). More remarkable, though, is the expressive darkening that frequently passes like a shadow across otherwise innocuous Andantes and minuets; not to speak of the sparse melodic fragments that open the fine C minor sonata, or the tumultuous rushing scales of the minore trio to the Bb, overlaid by anguished suspensions and diminished sevenths in full-dress Sturm und Drang mood. Schobert's assured handling of the quick-fire succession of musical topics (`light and shade, alternate agitation and tranquillity') was highlighted by an enthusiastic Charles Burney, and this quality is well captured in rhetorical vein, but without exaggeration. The violin part is obbligato throughout, though not always as soloistic as this recording would suggest. A discreet cello occasionally ventures into the upper register, but mainly underpins the resonant bass of the harpsichord, a copy of the `Yale' Taskin of 1769.
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Author:McVeigh, Simon
Publication:Early Music
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Aug 1, 1998
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