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Fanfare Magazine:  24:52 (05/06-2001)
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Harmonia Mundi

 Code-barres / Barcode : 0794881852925


Reviewer: William Youngren

We have here yet another of those discs, which arrive these days with increasing frequency, intended to give listeners an introduction to the music of C. P. E. Bach. That their arrival is no longer a surprise is itself occasion for modest rejoicing. For perhaps no composer who once stood so high has been, for 200 years now, so wildly misrepresented, in so many ways, by historians of music. Like most of its predecessors, this disc presents a judiciously selected group of Bach's works, very well performed.

The other day I was rereading Elements of Criticism by Henry Home, Lord Karnes, a Scottish jurist and philosopher of the mid 18th century. A rambling, encyclopedic, at times virtually unreadable work, Karnes's Elements is anything but the neat and systematic aesthetics textbook its title promises. What Karnes, who was (like almost everybody else in his time) deeply influenced by Locke, loves to talk about is the emotions: what objects set off which ones, how they proceed, how we express them bodily and in speech, how they mix with other emotions, and so on (and on and on). Knowing that I had a C. P. E. disc to listen to and review in a few days, I was struck by the extraordinary closeness of spirit between Karnes and Bach. Indeed, Bach may have read Karnes's Elements, which was translated into German almost immediately (and very successfully), and which his friend Lessing admiringly reviewed. At any rate, what interests Bach is also the depiction of emotions that develop, mix with quite different emotions, and in the end produce some sort of synthesis or blend.

We can see this tendency to mix or juxtapose widely different emotions in all the works presented here, particularly in their first movements. The first movement of the symphony Wq 179 is by turns fast and furious, then quietly thoughtful; that of the keyboard concerto Wq 20 is more regular, rather decorous in fact, but keeps being intruded upon by aggressive trills in the lower strings; that of the cello concerto Wq 170 is also fast and furious to start with, but the cello provides, temporarily, a calming voice. These contrasts are far more radical than those that often (but not always) exist between the first and second themes of a Classical-period first movement.

Moreover, Bach often uses this blending of widely differing emotions to give his works a kind of unity. In Wq 179 the first movement leads into a deeply pensive, sparely textured slow movement—and we feel that the mood is a kind of development of the thoughtful moments of the preceding movement. But then the work has a cheerful "hunting" finale that seems to have no discernible connection with either of the other two movements. Nor do the three movements of the symphony Wq 178 have much to do with one another: The first movement is grimly aggressive and energetic, the slow movement serene and gracious, the finale delightfully puckish and full of jokes. But the first movement of the symphony Wq 173 is noble and stately, unusually well behaved for C. P. E. Bach, and these qualities spill over into the slow movement, which is a noble lament, not deeply grieving but elegant and restrained.

So Bach had very much the same interest that Karnes and other 18th-century thinkers did in the workings of the inner processes that had recently come to be called emotions—the O.E.D.'s first entry for "emotion" dates from 1660. And this fact has encouraged the belief that Bach and other composers of the time subscribed to something called the Affektenlehre (or theory of emotions), which decreed that each movement of a work was to express the same emotion, or different emotions (but only one to a movement), or some damned thing that no sensible musician would have believed, let alone practiced, for a moment. Certainly not C. P. E. Bach, the patron saint of Empfindsamkeit—sensibility or ultrasensitivity.

Because the 18th century long ago got stereotyped as "The Age of Reason," music historians once took it for granted that virtually all 18th-century music had been written by the composer's connecting the dots in some precompositional scheme or other. J. S. Bach was usually excepted, having become a favorite of the Romantics in the 19th century, but it was only the essays of D. F. Tovey, most of which were published in the 1930s, that made people stop saying such things about Haydn and Mozart. And they are still said (or at least assumed) by many people about less well-known 18th-century composers such as C. P. E. Bach. For a more accurate account of the Affektenlehre, see George J. Buelow's excellent essay "Johann Mattheson and the Invention of the Affektenlehre" in New Mattheson Studies (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

All the playing on this disc is excellent: crisp, energetic, technically secure. But in the slow movements I sometimes missed the languid expansiveness found in Miklos Spanyi's recordings, for BIS, of Bach's keyboard concertos and sonatas.  

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