C. P. E. Bach: The Solo Keyboard Music, vol. 32

Miklós Spányi tangent piano
BIS-2205 CD
‘für Kenner und Liebhaber’ Sonatas and Rondos from Collections 1 & 2

I cannot claim to have followed closely BIS’s courageously unobtrusive project to record the complete corpus of the solo keyboard works of Bach’s eldest son. I have, however, reviewed several of the previous issues in EMR and elsewhere and when I do return to the cycle am invariably struck not only by the originality of C. P. E. Bach’s keyboard writing, but also the high level of performance consistently maintained by Miklós Spányi. Even given that Spányi has made a specialization of C. P. E.’s keyboard music – he completed an integral recording of the concertos in 2014 – it is remarkable that no hint of the routine has crept into his performances, even where the music is perhaps not the composer at his greatest.

The newest addition to the series brings three of the six sonatas from the first of Bach’s Kenner und Liebhaber  (basically a catch-all marketing ploy meaning the music is suitable for both accomplished and less accomplished performers) publications, which appeared in Leipzig in 1779, and the three rondos included in the second volume, published the following year. Spányi here plays a reconstruction of a tangent piano – a hybrid relative of both the harpsichord and the fortepiano – of 1799. The thoroughness of his survey is illustrated by the fact that the C-major Sonata, Wq 55/1 was also included in vol. 31 (which I’ve not heard) played on the clavichord, thus making for an interesting comparison of sonority with the composer’s favourite instrument.

To my mind it is not the sonatas that are the most important works here, but the rondos. It was a form developed by Bach and as the notes rightly point out one in which for substance he had few rivals other than Mozart, whose rondos anyway have a rather different construction. Like Haydn and Beethoven, Bach tended to employ motifs rather than themes as Mozart did, using them not just in reiterations of the principal rondo statement but in the episodes as well. Thus here all three of the rondos (in C-major, Wq 56/1; in D-major, Wq 56/3; and A-minor, Wq 56/5) open with four-note chordal motifs that constantly reappear, at times juxtaposed with other material, at times embedded within it. Wq 65/5, for example, has a rather pathetic, song-like motif developed into something rather stronger and contrapuntally between upper and lower register. Later it appears juxtaposed with gushing floods of surging arpeggiated figuration, the main feature of the first episode. Wq 56/1 is an exceptional work, almost a compendium of Bach’s stylistic traits, including as it does passionate outbursts, disconcertingly fragmented material, abrupt silences and unexpected modulations.

The sonatas, as already suggested, seem to me less striking. Indeed Wq 55/6 in G in particular is surely one of Bach’s less compelling keyboard works, with an opening movement in which it is at times difficult to comprehend what the composer is getting at, so disconcerting is the apparent lack of structure and continuity. But the drooping cascades that form the principal idea of the central Andante are appealing, as is the surging, flowing lyricism of the last movement.

Brian Robins