C.P.E. Bach: Mercurial Diversions For Uncertain Times

May 11, 2020
Originally published on May 11, 2020 6:27 pm

In these days of uncertainty, music can provide a safe haven, an escape, or even a boost of energy. I've found all of that and more in a new recording of the music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the second oldest of Johann Sebastian's musical sons, and a composer who continually fascinates me.

A new album of C.P.E. Bach's keyboard concertos is keeping my spirits buoyant these home-bound days. Michael Rische, leading the Berliner Barock Solisten, performs the music on a modern piano with equal parts elegance and exuberance. If you're new to C.P.E. Bach, this is a satisfying starter kit.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was born in 1714, educated by his dad, then spent nearly 30 years in Berlin as the harpsichordist to Frederick the Great before decamping to Hamburg to become the city's director of church music. As a composer, Bach charted his own startling, original path and was a principal proponent of a trend called Empfindsamer Stil, or loosely translated, "sensitive style." In Versuch ΓΌber die wahre Art das Klavier zu spielen, his 1753 treatise on how to play the keyboard, Bach emphasizes music's ability to touch the heart and trigger emotions, saying that musicians should play "aus der Seele," from the soul.

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In his music, Bach zigs and zags, suddenly slams on the breaks, punches the gas or, in the Allegretto from the E minor concerto from 1748, dares to interrupt the piano with stentorian outbursts of strings.

Bach's restless and quirky game plan is perhaps a rebellion against his father, whom he considered old-fashioned. C.P.E. is often thought of as a bridge from the baroque era to the new age of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. But I think he also foreshadows the freewheeling romantics. In the Minuet of the C minor concerto, from 1771, Rische's piano pleasantly skips along until it hits a brick wall, then gets a blast of orchestral dissonance before the music pivots to a completely new thought. Bach's blueprint for this concerto includes weaving the principal themes of all four movements together at the end. It's a device echoed more than 80 years later in Franz Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1.

Not everything in these concertos flies by with whiplash abandon. Bach's slow movements are elegant and languid, like opera arias without words. And, like the Adagio from the D major concerto, they can also sound like off-the-cuff improvisations.

There's a carefree spontaneity in these concertos that gives them a personal feel, as if you can hear the gears churning in a singular musical mind. It's that sense of the unexpected, even in these uncertain times, that makes C.P.E. Bach's music a welcome diversion.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In these days of uncertainty, just the right music can create a safe haven, an escape or even a boost of energy. NPR's Tom Huizenga has found all of that in a new recording of the music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL RISCHE'S PERFORMANCE OF CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH'S "PIANO CONCERTO IN D MAJOR (WQ 11)")

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was the second oldest of Johann Sebastian's musical sons, and he was incapable, it seems, of writing a dull piece of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL RISCHE'S PERFORMANCE OF CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH'S "PIANO CONCERTO IN D MAJOR (WQ 11)")

HUIZENGA: A new album of C.P.E. Bach's keyboard concertos is keeping my spirits buoyant these homebound days. Michael Rische, leading Berlin Baroque Soloist, performs the music on a modern piano with equal parts elegance and exuberance. And if you're new to C.P.E. Bach, this is a great starter kit. He was born in 1714, educated by his dad, then spent nearly 30 years in Berlin as the harpsichordist to Frederick the Great before decamping to Hamburg. As a composer, he developed his own startling original style. He zigs and zags and suddenly slams on the brakes or here in this E minor concerto, interrupts the piano with outbursts of strings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL RISCHE'S PERFORMANCE OF CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH'S "PIANO CONCERTO IN E MINOR (WQ 24)")

HUIZENGA: C.P.E. Bach's music is restless and quirky, perhaps in rebellion to his father, whom he considered old-fashioned. C.P.E. is often thought of as a bridge from the baroque style to the new age of Mozart and Beethoven, but I think he also foreshadows the freewheeling romantics. Just listen to the way the piano, pleasantly skipping along in this C minor concerto, hits a brick wall then gets a blast of orchestral dissonance before the music pivots to a completely new thought.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL RISCHE'S PERFORMANCE OF CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH'S "PIANO CONCERTO IN C MINOR (WQ 43:4)")

HUIZENGA: Not everything in these concertos flies by with whiplash abandon. C.P.E.'s slow movements are elegant and languid and can sound like improvisations.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL RISCHE'S PERFORMANCE OF CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH'S "PIANO CONCERTO IN D MAJOR (WQ 11)")

HUIZENGA: There's a spontaneity in these concertos that gives them a personal feel, as if you can hear the gears churning in a singular musical mind. It's that sense of the unexpected, even in these uncertain times, that makes C.P.E. Bach's music a welcome diversion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL RISCHE'S PERFORMANCE OF CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH'S "PIANO CONCERTO IN D MAJOR (WQ 11)")

CHANG: The album is "Keyboard Concertos" (ph) by C.P.E. Bach performed by Michael Rische and Berlin Baroque Soloists. That was NPR's Tom Huizenga.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL RISCHE'S PERFORMANCE OF CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH'S "PIANO CONCERTO IN D MAJOR (WQ 11)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.