Will the real CPE Bach please stand up? Carl Philipp Emanuel’s tricentenary offers the perfect opportunity to get to know this composer, fifth child of Johann Sebastian, and his music a little better. In his day, Emanuel was more highly regarded, soubriquets such as ‘the great Bach’ intended for CPE rather than JS, mainly due to changing musical tastes away from the contrapuntal craft of the Baroque period. Kirill Karabits’ imaginative programme revealed CPE as a difficult composer to place, with a symphony bearing all the hallmarks of a young Mozart and an ode with pre-echoes of Haydn’s The Creation. This was counterbalanced by the UK première of his 1784 St John Passion where, in the chorales at least, CPE demonstrated that he was a chip off the old block.

Kirill Karabits © Sussie Ahlburg
Kirill Karabits
© Sussie Ahlburg

The programme was evidently a labour of love for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s principal conductor. Karabits is responsible for this edition of the St John Passion, the manuscript parts of which were kept in Berlin’s Sing-Akademie, but which disappeared after World War II, only to resurface in Kiev. There, the young Ukrainian conductor transcribed and edited the score to enable what is probably the work’s first performance since the 18th century. Before we get carried away with thoughts of a lost musical masterpiece, it’s worth bearing in mind that CPE composed or compiled 21 Passion settings, four other versions of the St John alone. The chorales and biblical sections of this Passion are adapted from the 1745 St John Passion by Emanuel’s godfather, Telemann.

At little more than an hour, CPE’s Passion is a good deal more concise than those of his father, as they were intended for regular Sunday service in Lent. The format of chorales, arias and a tenor Evangelist singing recitatives remains familiar. However, the central chorale “Erniedrigt bis zu Knechtgestalt” (“Humiliated to the image of a slave”) showed a distinct move to a more ‘classical’ choral style and the accompagnato sections, where strings support the recitative instead of the excellent cello and harpsichord continuo, were touching. Robin Tritschler was the excellent tenor, clear diction and incisive delivery being especially important in this narrative role. Other solo roles were drawn from the ranks of the BBC Singers and were impressively delivered, not least by baritone Michael Bundy in the role of Jesus, afforded a place at the front of the platform. Indeed, the BBC Singers emerged as the heroes of the evening, incisive in their cries to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus, eloquent in the bittersweet Hallelujah as they reflect on Jesus’ death on Golgotha.

The first half of the programme had featured Emanuel’s ode Klopstock’s Morning Song on the Celebration of Creation – a lovely glow of ‘sunrise’ from the strings at the start and Haydnesque style in the final “Hallelujah” – and a symphony, and opened with a Kyrie and Gloria for a cappella chorus by Telemann.

It wasn’t just for the audience that CPE Bach was unusual territory – this is alien territory for the orchestra too. Larger orchestras rarely get to play Mozart and Haydn, giants of the Classical period, any more – and it showed. Maybe these ears are too used to hearing period instrument bands attack Classical repertoire with zest, or at least smaller modern ensembles adopt ‘historically informed’ performance practice. There was none of that here, resulting in an old-fashioned string sound. At six first violins, five seconds, four violas, three cellos and two double basses, this is a much smaller line-up than normally fielded by the BSO, but the playing was staid and, in the Sinfonia in B flat Wq182 especially, some queasy intonation marred the performance.

Karabits caresses and moulds the musical line rather than forcing his strict musical will on his ensemble. A little more vigour and risk-taking, at the expense of genteel politeness, would have done the composer a few more favours, although credit is due for adventurous programming.

***11