Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) is often described as a crucial composer in the transition between the Baroque and Classical periods, but we never seem to be able to move beyond this image and evaluate his substantial oeuvre on its own terms – i.e. without comparisons to his father or to Haydn and Mozart. During this anniversary year at least, I’m hoping that we can familiarize ourselves with more of his works and gain a stronger idea of his compositional style and how it developed.

Rachel Podger © Jonas Sacks
Rachel Podger
© Jonas Sacks

In this sense, the Proms Chamber Music concert was a perfect opportunity to get to know a range of C.P.E. Bach’s chamber music, from an early trio sonata of the 1730s to his magnum opus keyboard work of the 1780s. The programme was devised by the wonderfully vivacious baroque violinist Rachel Podger, who brought together her regular chamber music colleagues including Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano) and Tomasz Pokrzywinski (cello).

Podger framed the programme with two contrasting trio sonatas (which is a Baroque form with figured bass), and between them placed the newer Classical-style violin sonata and keyboard sonata. The violin sonata in C minor (1763), played by Podger and Bezuidenhout, was a substantial work which displayed the darker and dramatic – at times almost Romantic – sides of C.P.E. Bach. The sonata-form first movement was followed by a sublime second movement in A flat major, where the violin melody intertwined with the gently-flowing semiquavers in the piano right hand. Indeed this was one of the highlights of the concert for me. The sonata concluded with a vibrant tarantella.

Bezuidenhout then presented one of C.P.E Bach’s solo keyboard sonatas from the set entitled “für Kenner und Liebhaber (for connoisseurs and amateurs)” published near the end of his life in 1785. A single sonata doesn’t really do justice to his prolific output for the keyboard (he composed more than 100 sonatas), but still this E minor sonata had all the hallmarks of this composer: bold contrasts, flights of fantasy, quirkiness and wit. Bezuidenhout brought out many contrasting colours and expressions (with the subtle use of the pedal), and we were so captivated in his playing in the final movement that we were caught out by the abrupt, unexpected ending.

The two trio sonatas could not be more different. The first, which was performed by Baroque flute (Katy Bircher), violin and the continuo, is elegant and well-written (composed in his youth but revised in 1747) but one doesn’t sense C.P.E. Bach’s own voice yet. On the other hand, the trio sonata in C minor, “Sanguineus and Melancholicus” (1749) is a highly individual work – an animated dialogue between two violinists, one happy and optimistic (Podger) and the other deeply melancholic (Bojan Cicic). Basically “Sanguineus” tries to cheer “Melancholicus” but he remains inconsolable (the continuo supported the many tempo and mood changes well) until the final movement when they join together in a lively duet. Podger and Cicic played their roles with good humour – they have very different tones yet their sounds blend so well together. This work really summed up the spirit of C.P.E. Bach.

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