Something Old / Something New

C.P.E. Bach Sonatas

Clavier-Sonaten für Kenner und Liebhaber (Keyboard Sonatas for Experts and Amateurs) is one of the most significant titles of any music book in history. This collection by J.S. Bach’s second surviving son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, published between 1779 and 1787, helps usher in a new era in the music industry.

By the late 18th century, there were no longer enough church jobs to keep food on composers’ tables, and individual wealthy patrons were hard to find. But across Europe, more and more private citizens were entertaining themselves and their friends by making music at home. The money they spent on sheet music provided crucial income for many a fine composer.

This is not to say that C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard sonatas are easy. As the title implies, they offer a range in difficulty. And if your fingering technique is rusty or your fortepiano is on the fritz, never fear. Hungarian earlykeyboard specialist Miklós Spányi has you covered – many, many times over. Since 1998 he has been releasing two CDs per year in his C.P.E. Bach: The Solo Keyboard Music series for BIS. In 2017 and 2018, he released volumes 3336.

Volume 33 includes some of the Kenner und Liebhaber sonatas played on tangent piano (also known as a clavichord), so-called for the small blades or “tangents” used to strike the strings. This 5-octave keyboard was invented to offer a wider range of pitches, dynamics, and expressiveness than the harpsichord allowed. When the fortepiano – which could play even louder and softer — caught on around 1800, the tangent piano died out as quickly as it had appeared. But Spányi isn’t just trying to be esoteric: C.P.E. Bach wrote his sonatas specifically for the tangent.

A good introduction both to the instrument and the composer is this opening Allegro Moderato from the Sonata in D minor, Wq. 57, No. 4 (Wq. signifies the catalogue by Alfred Wotquenne, who also catalogued the works of Gluck; there is also a catalogue by E. Eugene Helm, signified with an H. number).

Besides the dry, woody tone of the tangent piano, you’ll immediately notice the clearly delineated beats in this movement. Representing the musical generation following his father’s rich, complex counterpoint (which was already old-fashioned when J.S. Bach wrote it), C.P.E. composed in a florid galant style, more focused on chordal progressions and melody than polyphonic voices.

 

The importance of a melodic upper voice in these keyboard sonatas (an indicator of the classical as opposed to the baroque period) is obvious in this example from Spányi’s Vol. 34. This is the Larghetto second movement from the Sonata in G, Wq. 58, No. 2. Spányi does a wonderful job of letting nature take its course, so to speak – Bach has provided an organically prominent melody line, with comely upward arcs and tasteful filigree, and Spányi doesn’t push it to be more than it naturally is. Restraint is vital to keep the music from sounding anachronistically romantic.

 

The Kenner und Liebhaber collection also includes some standalone rondos. This would have been written just before the term “rondo” became associated with a fast, showoff movement (thanks, Mozart!); here it just means a movement where a recognizable refrain keeps coming back. The simplicity of Rondo Wq. 58, No. 3 shows the “Liebhaber” (amateur) side of Bach’s output. But simple does not mean dumbed down, and Spányi’s sensitive, patient touch celebrates the Empfindsamkeit (sensitivity) that C.P.E. Bach, in his instructional essays, described as an essential ingredient of good music.

 

For C.P.E., it was fantasy-style pieces that truly embodied the subtleties of Empfindsamkeit. Volume 35 includes Spányi demonstrating a couple of these wandering pieces. It’s a compositional idea dating back to the Renaissance – a piece that meanders from one theme, style, tempo to another. Here’s the Fantasia in F, Wq. 59, No. 5. If you tune in at 1:30, you’ll get a stately pre-classical allegretto; at 3:00, it’s a breathless, unmetered stumble around the keyboard; at 3:49, Spányi breaks out some race-car virtuosity. If you haven’t used all your emotions yet, there’s still over a minute of the piece remaining!

 

Spányi is not the only one reveling in C.P.E. Bach’s solo sonatas lately. Playing excerpts from Book 1 of the Kenner und Liebhaber sonatas, is veteran early-keyboardist Colin Tilney (Six Clavichord Sonatas “For Connoisseurs and Amateurs” (Book 1) – Doremi Records). The most striking difference between his and Spányi’s recordings is the sound of the instrument. Tilney is also playing a tangent piano, which he calls a clavichord, but no adjustments have been made in the sound engineering for modern playback.

This was on purpose. Producer/engineer Christopher Butterfield includes the following awkwardly worded program note: “In order to obtain the correct soft and intimate sound of the clavichord, the listening volume for this recording should be set at a low level (below your volume setting for normal listening level).” To my ear, loud or soft, it’s a failed experiment, especially when compared to the complex timbres captured in Spányi’s recordings.

Here is Tilney playing the Allegro di molto third movement of the Sonata in G, Wq. 55, No. 6. What it lacks in sonic depth, it more than makes up for in performance intrigue. While Spányi relaxes into the natural development of these pieces, Tilney seems to actively explore the inner workings of C.P.E.’s mind – and he finds some rather surprising things there.

 

The prolific C.P.E. wrote sonatas for other instruments as well, and there are a couple of interesting recent recordings. Johanna Rose plays the Bach sonatas for viola da gamba, with harpsichordist Javier Núñiez (Rubicon Records). These are elegant works, rarely recorded. While Rose’s bowing arm does not have quite the attack and rhythmic exactness of a Jordi Savall or Alison Crum, she produces a clear, singing tone and has intelligent musical sense. These pieces are well worth knowing. Here’s the second movement of the Sonata in D, Wq. 137.

 

And then there are the solo organ sonatas. Iain Quinn has recorded five of them on a Naxos release, plus one of the keyboard sonatas rendered on organ. This skilled performance reminds you of just who taught C.P.E. Bach how to write music: Mr. Organ himself, the all-time world champion of keyboard polyphony, a.k.a. “Dad”. Of course, these pieces are by the same galant composer we’ve been discussing, yet his music seems different in the context of that magnificent, enveloping pipe organ sound. No question whose son he is.