CPE Bach: Sonata in G minor, Wq. 65/17 (H.47), 3rd movement, Allegro assai  [4’07”]

Sharona Joshua, fortepiano

08 CPE Bach

Is that a wry smile from (arguably) the most underrated Bach? You decide

One of many valid answers to the question ‘how did the Baroque era in music turn into the Classical?’ is the name of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach (1714–88), son of Johann Sebastian and arguably the second-most talented member of the dynasty, though his half-brother Johann Christian also has a claim.  Successor of the great Telemann (his godfather) as musical top-dog in Hamburg, Emmanuel has significance deriving not least from his leading part in the development of the most characteristic structural principle of Classical instrumental music, sonata form, to an extent the tripartite successor of the binary model encountered in the Scarlatti piece.  This is most commonly associated with the first movement of a Classical symphony, sonata, quartet, etc., but was never confined to it.  The evolution followed anything but a straightforward path – musical history simply isn’t like that – but what is certain is that by the time CPE and others (including the young Haydn, then Mozart) had finished, a formal stage plan had been set out, on which so many of the great musical dramas of the next century and more would be played out.

As with form, so with expression.  The middle of the eighteenth century was also a time of fevered debate and much experiment in the field of musical style: the period of the style galant, Sturm und Drang, and numerous other now-elusive concepts met with in the music histories.  The insightful critic Wilfrid Mellers drew a helpful distinction between what he called the Popular (galant) style of Carl Stamitz and his followers, with its crowd-pleasing effects, and the style of Sensibility (Empfindsamer Stil – another of those labels) of which our ‘Hamburg Bach’ became the leading exponent.  The one (massively simplifying, of course) was efficient, polished, carrying all before it, but perhaps tending to run on rails.  CPE’s music, by contrast, is frequently almost proto-Romantic in its unpredictability, subjective emotionalism and willingness to embrace a variety of moods within a single movement, or even short passage.  To quote Charles Rosen again (The Classical Style) his music is “violent, expressive, brilliant, continuously surprising, and often incoherent”.  A corollary of this is the oft-remarked oddity it displays in a movement like the present allegro assai, which is perky, quirky and at points downright jerky (but endearingly so, I find).  Both the proto-Romanticism and the oddity, and for that matter the alleged incoherence, may plausibly be accounted for by Philip Emmanuel’s insatiable quest for novel means of expression and new forms to contain them.

He was, in other words, one of the great experimental composers, though too good to be regarded as merely historically important. He is a master in his own right, maybe a genius. He has been patronized as a transitional figure, though not by Mozart, whose debt couldn’t have been more generously acknowledged:  “He is the father, we are the children,” he said.  Time for a revival, I’m saying.  This entertainingly effervescent disc is a good place to start investigating him, presenting a goodly variety of sonatas and other works played on fortepiano (rather than CPE’s favoured clavichord) by Sharona Joshua.  Sample the first movement of the F minor sonata for a taste of the wild, barely-controlled streak we’ve been hearing about.

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