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Fanfare Magazine: 39:1 (09-10/2015) 
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Reviewer: Bertil van Boer

Elsewhere in this issue I discuss a recent disc of the keyboard works of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, noting there that one of the reasons for his stylistic incongruity may have been that he was unable to compete with his slightly younger (by four years) brother Carl Philipp Emanuel. If one needs proof, then this set of six sonatas published about 1744 as the latter’s op. 2 fulfills the bill. The works themselves date from the preceding two years and were written in his new position at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin, where he was both the King’s accompanist and a member of that elite musical society that the monarch gathered about him. Although he himself was rather more conservative in his taste and musical performances—after all, Frederick was both a flautist and composer who liked to play before his select audiences—other venues, mainly the ancillary concerts held by Johann Friedrich Agricola or Johann Gottlieb Janitsch, allowed for C. P. E. to develop his own sensitive or emotion-filled style, a characteristic of this so-called Berlin School. Indeed, he put enough energy into explaining the expressive content in a seminal treatise on keyboard performance published in 1753, almost a decade later, so that one cannot dismiss the style as abnormal or momentary, but rather as one that was cultivated and imitated enough to become dominant during these decades in Germany.

Though there are hints of his father’s rather solid keyboard style in the occasional contrapuntal moments, it is clear that C. P. E. is embarking on a new course in musical style. For instance, in the slow movement of the Sonata in E♭Major, the plaintive lines still employ sequences, but these are more lyrical and have harmonic twists and turns that emphasize the sentimentality. Close suspensions heighten the poignancy of the mournful minor-key tune, turning it into a lament filled with pathos. In the opening movement of the B-Minor Sonata (performed in an embellished version from 1762), the harmonies collide with each other in unexpected ways, interspersed with fantasia-like runs that dislocate the theme and serve to rush from one brief motivic section to the next. This makes the rather straightforward imitative thematic structures of the final movement all the more gripping, even as they have a brief moment of sunshine with a turn to the D-Major key at the end of the first section. Here the influence of J. S. Bach can be felt in the repetition and sequence, but this is belied by the twists in harmony that confuse the voice leading. In the opening of the A-Minor Sonata, one finds a feeling of being distraught in the quick succession of minor-key thematic sequences which never really find rest, eventually winding up on a deceptive cadence, from which the secondary theme in the major is briefly launched before returning to tonal ambiguity. The lyrical second movement thus seems almost like a serene respite, a graceful theme that is fully Classical in style. This makes the final movement all the more tension-filled and emotional. One might hesitate to call this Sturm und Drang, but the roots of this passionate music are certain here in this Sonata. The same sequence of conflicting emotions is found throughout the E-Minor Sonata, with a tame and reflective second movement squeezed in between two passionate displays of both virtuosity and feeling.

These sonatas are not unknown to the repertory. Indeed, just recently the Bob van Asperen recordings from the early 1990s (itself a Teldec recording from the late 1970s) were rereleased on Das Alte Werk; of course there are Miklos Spanyi’s versions on clavichord on BIS from 2008 as part of his complete keyboard works, and just this year Mahan Esfahani has released on Hyperion the Sonatas on harpsichord. Therefore, in this past year representing the 300th anniversary of Bach’s birth, the music is not among those unknown and unplayed works.

Bruno Procopio’s renditions are therefore in competition with a number of sets, and given that Bach himself preferred the clavichord for most of his own performances, doing these on the harpsichord might not be the best to obtain all of the fine dynamic nuances that Bach intended for his music. This being said, I find that Procopio’s performance is convincing and energetic. He knows instinctively when to bring out the finer points of Bach’s often gnarly harmony and voice leading, when to dash about in wild abandon on the various runs, and when to be restrained when Bach is at his more lyrical or steady rhythmic best. The instrument used is capable of considerable emotional content surprisingly, and no doubt this is a performance of which Bach himself would have been proud. To my mind, this is the set of these Sonatas that one ought to have.



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