Suite in E minor Wq 62/12

April 24, 2022 – Marc-André Hamlein, piano

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, third child of J. S. Bach to survive beyond infancy, asserted in his autobiography that he never had any music teacher but his father. Though he may have been exposed to various instruments, he apparently studied only keyboards—clavichord, harpsichord, and the new fortepiano. He traveled very little and held just two long-term major positions: royal chamber music accompanist at the Berlin court of Frederick the Great from 1738 to 1768 and—succeeding his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann—Kantor of the Lateinschule and director of music in the five principal churches in Hamburg (1768–88). As geographically constrained as his life seems to have been, by the time he moved to Hamburg at age fifty-four he was the most famous keyboard player and teacher in Europe.

Rejecting much of the polyphonic style of his father, C.P.E. Bach turned to the new German “empfindsamer” (intimately expressive) style, elsewhere called “galant,” of which his music is considered the best representative. The empfindsamer Stil is apparent in his sudden changes of Affekt (affect or mood), bold harmonic schemes, “sighing” motives, and greater emphasis on melody. These characteristics occur to some extent throughout his one thousand or so works, ranging from songs and oratorios to symphonies and keyboard works. The keyboard works, which form the core of his output from the 1730s to the last years of his life, consist of sonatas, fantasias, dance movements, and variations.

Only rarely did C.P.E. Bach employ the standard movements of his father’s suites—allemande, courante, sarabande, minuet (or alternate dance such as a gavotte or bourrée), and gigue—as in the present Suite in E minor. The piece first appeared in print under the title “Sonata” in 1761 in the fourth collection of Musikalisches Allerley von verschiedenen Tonkünstlern (Musical pot-pourri by various composers) issued by Berlin publisher Friedrich Wilhelm Birnsteil. Clearly Bach made revisions to certain movements for publication, as can be seen by comparison with his manuscript version of 1751. Scholars are divided on whether the work was actually composed in 1751 or, owing to its retrospective suite form, in the 1730s. The new complete works edition of C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard works, which runs to eighteen volumes (!), rightly classifies it as a suite and provides the opportunity to compare the 1751 version with that published a decade later.

Despite C.P.E. Bach’s use of the old-fashioned sequence of movements, his originality shines in his expressive chromatic harmonies and melodic infections, rhythmic motives, syncopations and disruptions, and changes of register. The Allemande, the most extensive of the movements, adopts the stile brisé (arpeggiated texture) of the French harpsichordists, which helps to sustain decaying sounds of notes struck on the keyboard (or lute). The faster paced Courante also keeps up a constant motion with a texture that shift easily between three and two voices. The pensive Sarabande, in imitative style, is striking for its harmonic coloring and expressive peaks, especially in the second half.

The fourth movement features three Menuets, the first returning after the second and third in the manner of a refrain. Each exhibits a different character—the first is notable for its striking bass-note downbeats while the upper voice is silent and for its plentiful dotted (long-short) rhythms, the second for its graceful sets of melodic repeated notes, and the third for a very different emphasis on repeated notes in the right hand over a non-stop running bass. The nimble Gigue again takes up the imitative style of an invention, highlighted by a shift to the upper register to begin the second half.

Our featured artist Marc-André Hamelin, in a January 2022 interview with Presto Music’s Katherine Cooper, talked about his acclaimed new recording, C.P.E. Bach Sonatas and Rondos (Hyperion). Aside from his childhood knowledge of several C.P.E. Bach pieces, a crucial seed was planted when he listened to his wife’s broadcast of a Mikhail Pletnev C.P.E. Bach CD on her classical radio show around 2008–09, but it wasn’t until three or four years ago that Hamelin seriously explored making a C.P.E. Bach recording himself. The difficult part was choosing what to record out of the eighteen volumes of the complete keyboard works, which were offered to him by the edition’s managing director, Paul Corneilson. Said Hamelin, “I did this recording out of sheer love for the music—and out of hope that it might incite more pianists to look into it, because it’s a fascinating trove of treasures.”

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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