Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-88), the second son of J.S. Bach, was a hugely talented composer in his own right, but his music is still rarely heard on the concert stage. In fact, it is not just his works, but the whole pre-classical repertory between Bach/Handel and Haydn/Mozart still lies largely unexplored except in recordings.

So it was a great joy that Sir Roger Norrington and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment devoted a whole evening to the orchestral music of C.P.E. Bach – four symphonies and two concertos, one for the harpsichord and one for the cello. In fact this is core repertory for this versatile period instrument orchestra (they have previously recorded some of the symphonies and cello concertos with Gustav Leonhardt) and their understanding of style as well as their virtuosity really brought this music alive.

Each half of the concert consisted of two symphonies with a concerto placed in between. The symphonies are all written for string ensemble and the violin parts are especially challenging with lots of fast runs, broken chord figures and tricky rhythms, which the players took in their stride. Sir Roger navigated the music masterfully, emphasizing the quixotic nature of the music such as the sudden change of dynamics, unexpected pauses and the inventive transitions between the movements. Such characteristics were especially evident in the two lively symphonies from the set commissioned by the Viennese music patron Baron van Swieten. One felt that these works must have had an influence on Haydn’s symphonies.

The harpsichord concerto, composed in 1740, is in a more baroque mould and not as innovative nor virtuosic as his harpsichord sonatas. Since it is quite an intimate work, perhaps it would have worked better without the conductor (no offence to Sir Roger), particularly because the soloist Steven Devine is a regular performer with the OAE and he can direct from the keyboard. Still, Devine’s playing was beautifully articulated and nuanced, and the second movement was especially moving.

In contrast, the cello concerto in A major, played by OAE member Richard Lester (also known as the cellist of the Florestan Trio), was a brilliant and technically demanding work. Lester’s playing was more assured than flamboyant, perhaps reflecting his background as an ensemble player. Sometimes the lower register lacked power, but he displayed beauty of tone in the lyrical solo melody in the second movement.

Typically the works all ended with ebullient finales and at the conclusion of each work Norrington would turn around to the audience as if to make sure we were sharing the fun. Indeed we were! If such a fine and spirited performance by the OAE can’t convince people that C.P.E. Bach is a composer to be reckoned with, then who can?
(The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 7 March from 7pm, available on the iPlayer for 7 days)