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

November 1, 2008 By Giza Developer

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!