A 2015 Top Ten Selection: CPE Bach’s Symphonies–Each A Delight

Review by: Robert Levine

CPE

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

One of the things that those particularly fond of the Classical era in music love is the formality, the predictability, and the changes that can be made within that formal structure. It gives comfort, and one admires differentiations in orchestration, combinations of and the highlighting of instruments and tempos. And then we encounter CPE Bach, Johann Sebastian’s second son, placed firmly in the Classical Era and almost impossible to second guess.

Just take the start of the CD–the symphony in D major. It begins with almost maliciously repeated stabs by the violins on D, then F-sharp, and then B, all while the other instruments toodle around the stabs. An entertaining allegro somehow grows out of it and at approximately the two-minute mark, the stabbing, starting on D but wandering elsewhere, returns, then more allegro and some wonderful play for the winds, and then the original stabs at around 3:50, which turns into a full-blown, good-natured allegro event for the whole band before weirding out about 30 seconds from the end by slowing down, entering another key, and melting into the Largo that follows. The calm, pastoral Largo lasts for 90 seconds and then plunges into the busy, presto finale. In 10-and-a-half minutes we’ve been on quite a journey.

These unexpected alterations in mood and tempo become trademarks, but “unexpected” remains the operative word: we know they will show up, but we never quite know when and where. The opening of the F major symphony is something Haydn or Mozart might have composed, but they would not have insisted on interjecting tiny episodes in another key; nor would they, 35 seconds from the end, leave a musical phrase in the middle to darken, shift keys and tempo at the same time, and transition into a very somber viola and cello introduction of the two-minute-long second movement, which then swiftly becomes a charming gigue in which we can practically see country bumpkins dancing about despite intrusions every so often of a note or three chugged out by the low strings.

You also notice his fondness for repeated notes on the strings, but they’re invariably used differently–sometimes to comment, sometimes as a theme (the finale of the A major, which repeats a nice, simple swirling of strings as a main theme, gets punctuated by the stabs as it moves from key to key). And then there’s the B minor, a study in solemnity for the first two movements, with a wild storm as a finale. I could go on, but you get the point: CPE may be stuck in an era, but he’s in his own, excuse the expression, groove, and won’t be boxed in. Always refreshing.

Rebecca Miller leads the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in fearless performances (at A=415, making the keys noted play at a half-tone lower than indicated), using everything from no vibrato to a throbbing warmth in middle movements. The strings are spectacular, at times playing with alarming speed and at others with comfort and tenderness; the winds, popping up all over, are just as good. The CD claims to have been recorded live, but there’s not a peep from the audience. Play these a couple at a time–they look alike but each deserves scrutiny. Like chocolate truffles.



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Recording Details:

  • BACH, C.P.E.:
    Symphony Wq. 183/1; Symphony Wq. 182/4; Symphony Wq. 182/5; Symphony Wq. 183/3; Symphony Wq. 179

    Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Rebecca Miller


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