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CONCERNING THE BIS LABEL’S “COMPLETE KEYBOARD ...

And now for something completely off topic, but that I have to get off my chest...

Call me a nerd, but I like the music of the 18th century, and have been a devotee especially of the music of one of the most unjustly neglected composers of all time, the other genius of the Bach family, Carl Philip Emanuel Bach. I've been so for over thirty years now, certainly not the first to do so, but, in my own way, ahead of the curve of renewed critical and popular interest that has led - finally - to an effort to publish all of his scores, and, even better, to record his magnificent concerti for keyboard...well, for harpsichord....well, for keyboard. We'll get back to that...

But first a few basics about C.P.E; he is not, most decidedly, his father. Nor is he Mozart, nor Haydn, nor Beethoven. Certainly he is the equal of those giants (musical heresy number one), but his "style" evades all effort to pin him down. Every now and then, one will hear a piece of his on a classical station, usually from a vast offering of what he called his "Gebrauchmusik" or "necessity music," composed under the pressures of conformity to the popular tastes of the day. And usually this music is...charming, stunning in places, but overall, it leaves one wondering what all the fuss over C.P.E. Bach is really all about.

The answer to that lies in his solo keyboard works, and more importantly, with a series of harpsichord....er....keyboard concerti which, according to his own words, he wrote "for myself, and in full freedom." These are, to someone wondering how we got from J.S. Bach to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, quite a shock, for the influence upon the latter three, and the influence of the former, are all quite apparent. And now I will start uttering my heresies and irritate the music critics. In my opinion, C.P.E. is SO far ahead of his time that one can detect in him an original synthesis that, if one listens closely, one hears various stylistic fragments of in those who succeeded him. Mozart and Beethoven both, as is generally known among the musicological junta, acknowledged their indebtedness to C.P.E. Bach.

Well anyway, being such a fan of these harpsichord...er...keyboard concerti (be patient, I'll get there) masterpieces, needless to say for decades I collected every score, and every recording, I could lay my hands on. And usually, that was precious little. It meant crawling through the narrow streets of England seeking out the odd shop, combing through endless internet searches, buying Schwann's catalogue on a regular basis and hoping against hope that there would be a new recording.

So, you can imagine, given these circumstances, how delighted I was when the European label BIS began a project in the 1990s to record ALL of C.P.E. Bach's harpsichord....er....KEYBOARD concerti. To my further delight, these were being done by Miklos Spanyi and the Concerto Armonico from Hungary, a group that had previously recorded three of my favorites - Wq. 31, Wq 23, and Wq 33 - on the Hungaroton label, and given thrilling performances. Spanyi is - by anyone's lights - a superb keyboard performer of period music on period instruments.

When I ordered Volumes 1-3 of this series, I was not disappointed, for Spanyi had selected a large German Hass five choir harpsichord (I think it was five choirs but I count only four in the photo with the CD and we're, oddly, never given a disposition of the instument) whose range and timbre were well shown off in these three volumes, from Wq 12 where the 16' choir and stormy development section look way beyond Beethoven almost to - dare I say it? - some much later "heavy metal" music, to more delicate passage work in Wq. 18 #3. I was quite pleased, not the least of which is because I am a big fan of the harpsichord, and an even bigger fan of BIG harpsichords. Spanyi's choice of instrument was, here, impeccable, for C.P.E.'s music seems to demand such an instrument.

But then came later volumes, and the beginnings of a great disappointment, and here I am definitely departing company with the praise for this series that has been lavished on it in various reviews, for Spanyi quickly moved through a couple of recordings on a pianoforte, and then abandoned even that for the tangeant piano with which he has afflicted every performance since (with the exception of Wq 27, where again we return to the harpsichord, since the score calls for woodwinds and horns in addition to the strings, and such an ensemble would simply overwhelm the lowly trigonometry piano - not so the "heavy metal" Hass). Don't get me wrong, his technique, his interpretation and that of the Concerto Armonico, remain excellent...but the choice of instrument, which he attempts to justify in one of the accompanying booklets, leaves me wishing for that magnificent Hass that began the series all that much more. His justifications, while scholarly, seem to me to be nonetheless contrived, as if the amount of footnotes will justify what the ear and general historical circumstances know to be an anachronism.

We are told, truly enough, that C.P.E. billed these as "Klavier Konzerten" or "keyboard concerti", and thus this justifies the use of pianofortes and tangeant pianos. So too it would justify organs and clavichords, but no one would think of recording them on those.  Of course, a clavichord would barely be heard over the breathing of the persons in the orchestra, let alone the orhestral ensemble itself. But then again,  the same could be said of the pianoforte selected on some of the recordings. And later on, the magnificent passagework of his concerti which emerged so clearly with the Hass is utterly lost in a wash of sound with the tangeant piano. And the real disappointment came with the recording of Wq 14 on that instrument, for here I still prefer Trevor Pinnock's and the English Concert's over that of Spanyi, if only for the performance on the harpsichord. Sure, everyone knows C.P.E. was instrumental in promoting the development of the piano, but this seems a rather threadbare reason for Spanyi to have chained himself to the tangeant piano and then thrown away the key, especially when C.P.E. doubtless had more access to harpsichords than pianofortes or tangeant pianos (at least while he was in Berlin).

Doubtless the only other time we will ever hear that magnificent Hass again in this series is with the double concerto Wq 47, where the score calls for a harpsichord and piano specifically. If we're lucky, we might hear it again on Wq 46, where the choice of the second keyboard concertato part would seem to justify a piano, just for the sake of contrast to a harpsichord. I actually shudder though, at the thought of Wq 23 - that zenith of Emanuel Bach's compositional technique - which Gustav Leonhardt so long ago brought to audiences, and which Spanyi himself gave such a thrilling performance on the old Hungaroton label - being performed on this by now monotonously predictable tangeant piano and threadbare orchestra, when, if anything, this piece almost demands the Hass and something more intense. Too late, though, Spanyi has already recorded the piece on the tangeant piano.

I've ordered the volume, of course, and of course, shall listen to it....teeth grinding all the way. But after that once, I doubt I'll listen to that performance again. But a final plea - not that it will do any good - to Mr. Spanyi and the Concerto Armonico: could we at least have some other kind of piano? Maybe a cosine piano? or a co-tangent piano? or maybe a secant piano? Or better yet, why not a Boesendorffer Imperial Grand? Oops, I forgot...this is a period instrument performence series.

And that's my point. After all the 'artistic" jusifications for the selection of this instrument which has so dominated and marred a series that started off to be so promising, we are left, really, with the impression that Emanuel Bach begrudgingly visited the harpsichord but very few times, while he snuck out of Frederick the Great's court and ran off seeking tangeant pianos at the local used tangeant piano dealership. I am therefore decidedly not joining the musicological junta in praise of this series - they've positively fallen over themselves in praise of the selection of the tangeant piano - for this sole and simple reason, for the consistency with which Spanyi has chained himself to this instrument does not in the final analysis really reflect what was probably in Emanuel Bach's head, for his very last concerto only specifically scores for piano, and that alone, to my mind, cuts through the blizzard of justifications Spanyi offers for his selection of the "trigonometry piano." Perhaps we can eagerly await a performance of all of Mozart's "keyboard concerti" on the harpsichord from Mr. Spanyi for similar reasons...but wait, that's ridiculous...and so too is the recording, the first recording, of the majority of Emanuel Bach's concerti on a tangeant piano.

So...a final plea to all those harpsichordists and period instrument groups out there - and I know you're there because I see your recordings (we just can't get many of them here in the States):  please would you record C.P.E. Bach's harpsichord concerti on a harpsichord, and please would you use a nice large instrument such as Mr. Spanyi began his series with, and then so inexplicably and completely abandoned? Will you please not succumb to this nonsense that to reach wider audiences we need to use pianos rather than harpsichords?

So...for this series, I give five stars, but only to those volumes where the harpsichord is the chosen concertato instrument. For the rest of the series, five stars because it's Emanuel Bach, one star for the monotony of the tangeant piano, for an average of three stars. I take away a star for the stubborn wooden-headedness of chaining oneself to one type of instrument, for two stars. Rest assured, if there ever is another series of recordings of Emanuel Bach's concerti that makes the harpsichord its main concertato instrument (find that Hass!), then Mr. Spanyi's series with its tangeant piano (in my collection) will be up at ebay!

7 thoughts on “ CONCERNING THE BIS LABEL’S “COMPLETE KEYBOARD ...”

  1. Joe –

    Thanks for pointing me in the direction of CPE Bach. I playlisted him on YouTube and found over 40 pieces that are certainly worth discovering. I don’t pretend that YouTube sound quality is the best, but for a newby it is a nice journey. All of you here are talking WAY over my head. I am coming into this late, but CPE is completely worth the listening. I’ve always had my problems with Mozart (much to frivolous and shallow for my taste), and there is not enough that I’ve found that strikes a chord deep enough. His works hit me fabulously. I can definitely see some of his influence on Mozart and Beethoven and the others.

    Again, thanks for exposing me to this Bach. I can’t take his dad – fugues seem over-mechanical to me, and I can’t get past them and the hoopla about them, so I just ignore his works. But CPE is everything emotional and soaring his father never seemed to be, to me at least.

    Thanks.

    (BTW, I am the Steve from the Kempton conferences who dares disagree with you on a thing here and a point there. Keep up the good work on the Nazi developments.)

  2. OK, now forgive my late reply.

    Joseph, when you refer to “period strings,” are you referring to the instruments themselves, the technique, or the arrangement? I have one album by Ensemble Alcatraz of sacred music from 13th century Spain (Visions and Miracles). It is one of my favorites. What makes it so different and interesting for me is the vielle and the percussion. But for me, it’s the whole package of the tone and the arrangement that pleases me.

    It was my privilege that I met and jammed with the woman who played on that album at a master class. Her instrument was subtly different in size and proportion.

    It has been my great sorrow that I learned to play piano but my teacher didn’t teach me to improvise. I kept at it all these years and now can improvise somewhat. Oddly enough, I am able to improvise like no one’s business on the accordion. The piano is very hard for me.

    As for PDQ Bach, all praise to Peter Schickele. I could try all day and never do what he does. He is fabulous.

  3. Dear Oliver:

    My apologies for being so tardy in responding to your comment, but thank you so much for a thoughtful take. However, I need to clarify some things about CPE “thinking in harpsichord.” First, I’m well aware that his favorite instrument was the clavichord. But we’re not talking about solo keyboard works with his concerti, where I DO think his favored instrument – with bows to the late Professor Grout – WAS the harpsichord. You are quite correct that he was a great improvisor as was his father, and both would’ve doutbless performed “beyond the notated score,” CPE especially. Sadly, as an organist, I know all too well how badly organ music has suffered under the French and American schools of performing JS Bach, where almost NO improvisation is encouraged or tolerated, and I sometimes doubt that anyone knows how to do it well save maybe Ton Koopman or Anthony Newman.

    …but we DEFINITELY part company on period performances. Frankly, I just can’t STAND the “enormity” of some recordings of JS Bach…Otto Klemperer’s recording way back when of the B Minor Mass comes to mind, as does Bernstein’s. But I am not a woodenly devoted period instrument performance person either, that being said. I rather enjoyed those synthesizer performances of Rameau and Scarlatti that Bob James did a few years back, and even his synthesizer performances of JS Bach’s double and triple keyboard concerti. And for Mozart, yes, I like a modern piano…but please give me some period strings, the modern ones grate on my ear and, in my opinion, ruin the phrasing. So you see, when all is said and done, I really AM a musicological heretic (I could, if I were really venturing into dangerous territory, offer what I REALLY think of Beethoven, for example, before whom I still refuse to bow). But Emanuel Bach, yes…the man was unquestionably a genius, and far ahead of his time.

    And as for an unashamedly inauthentic performance of Emanuel’s concerti, a few years back, I forget on which label, some poor soul decided to record Wq 31, that wonderfully and elegantly Mozartian concerto, on a modern piano with modern strings. Besides some magnificently sluggish ornamentation brought about by those wretched hammers, the scrapings of the strings was unbearable. In a word (well, actually, THREE words), the inauthentic performance “didn’t work.” It MIGHT have worked if, adding modern instrument insult to injury, Tom and Jerry had been doing a music video along with it, in a replay of their Oscar Winning “Cat Concerto”, making CPE the victim this time rather than Liszt.

    As for the Versuch, I own a copy and study it assiduously (my old organ teacher insisted I buy it as part of my instruction), and while you’re correct in that it isn’t an exhaustive work by any means, it is nonetheless….er…thorough.

    But anyway, your comments are taken in the good and friendly spirit of discussion that they were offered in. Someday when I get around to it I might post my heresies re. Beethoven and other stalwarts of the increasingly boring standard repretoire, but after all, you’re dealing with someone who, if wanting to listen to gloriously constructed noisy sludge, would prefer to listen to the late organ symphonies of Charles-Marie Widor than suffer through one more performance of Louie’s fifth, sixth, or ninth, much less his Appasionata Sonata, a thinly disguised ripoff of one of Emanuel Bach’s sonatas, at least in its openening motif. (And yes, I really DO like Widor.)

    And speaking of ripoffs…I’m off now to enjoy another viewing of P.D.Q. Bach’s “Abduction of Figaro” and the end of opera as an art form…

    Thanks again for the thoughtful comments, and for suffering through this bit of playfulness,
    Best wishes,
    Joseph Farrell

  4. Dear Dr. Farell,

    I largely agree with your review: I think it is fair, but there are some details I might reconsider.

    CPE Bach’s solo keyboard sonatas are written for clavichord – “Bach’s favourite instrument was not the harpsichord but the the softer, more intimate clavichord, which had a capacity for delicate dynamic shading” (A History of Western Music – Grout, Palisca) . I think you are correct in saying that, in the case of the concertos, a clavichord would have been inaudible, but I can’t quite envisage that he “thought in harpsichord”.

    Like you I am unconvinced by the performances on the piano – it is incongruous with what is otherwise a “period performance” and I don’t think it really works in this recording.

    An unashamedly inauthentic performance could work though: I’m puzzled by the “authenticity crowd” who claim “authentic = good” as a self-evident truth. I think it is a matter of taste which is beter between a performance of the St. John’s Passion by 16 singers or 300 singers. Both interpretations are credible and both can be very moving (whether you are an amateur or connoisseur – “Kenner und Liebhaber” as CPE Bach would have it).

    Whilst I’m not condoning complete licence in interpretation it is more flexible than we think. Furthermore I imagine there is often some confusion between being faithful to a musical score and being faithful to (valid or misguided) ideas about a composer or a musical style.

    Cecilia, you are right that we don’t know all the details about musical interpretation during this period. CPE Bach actually wrote a hefty manual called “The Art of Keyboard Playing” but it’s neither comprehensive nor free from ambiguity. CPE Bach was a great improviser (much like JS Bach and Mozart) – what he would have played in performance is often quite different to what it is notated. This is particularly the case with concertos which were intended for the piano – the publishers may have edited some scores quite heavily (if the composer had not had the foresight orginially) to produce “commercial editions” for amateur pianists.

  5. Ahh…the famed abbess-composer of Bingen! Yes I love her soaring melodies…VERY ahead of her time in that respect. In many ways her art was at loggerheads with the dour mediaeval Latin catholicism she espoused, as if it were some sort of escape for her.

    As for CPE, strictly speaking, one can compose him on any keyboard instrument, but the monotonous use of a tangeant piano – over which the critics are raving – leaves me cold. Emanuel Bach “thought in harpsichord” and any listening of his concerti will convince one of that fact.

  6. I commiserate with your sentiments, although I am not so familiar with CPE Bach. I like secular medieval music, and also the music of Hildegard von Bingen. I like the several CDs I have, but how authentic are the performances? Just because they sound old, how do I know this instrumentation and rhythm is what was performed back then? I’ve seen Hildegard’s music written, and the notes are more suggestions than actual notes. I am not sure how the scholars know what notes to transcribe. Perhaps there are some obvious manuscripts that everyone but me knows about and I’m displaying my great ignorance here. But I do wonder about the consistent “old” style that I find in these CDs. I love Hildegard because she was on fire with creativity and I admire that.

    I think artists should try to be authentic, and if CPE Bach composed and performed on the harpsichord, well then, let’s hear it that way.

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