C. P. E. Bach: The Solo Keyboard Music, vol. 35

“Für Kenner und Leibhaber” Collection 5
Miklós Spányi tangent piano
BIS-2260 CD
Wq59, Wq69, Wq79 (solo version)

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he musical genius of the great Bach seems in fact to be inexhaustible. However often one studies his sonatas, rondos, or fantasias […] and however one compares them with one another, or with the works of other masters, one always finds that each piece is entirely new and original in its invention, while the spirit of Bach is unmistakably present in them all; this composer is literally incomparable’. No, not J. S. Bach, but an encomium directed at his eldest son by the Magazin der Musik  on the occasion in 1786 of the publication of the 5th in the series of his keyboard works issued under the title ‘Für Kenner und Liebhaber’ (a catch-all marketing ploy meaning for both experienced and less experienced players).

The opening quotation is wordy, but worth quoting since it underlines not only the esteem with which C. P. E. Bach was held by the end of his life (he died in 1788), but equally because it remains as valid and succinct a description of the half dozen works included in vol. 5 as one might hope for. It includes pairs of works in the three forms mentioned in the quotation. The two sonatas in the set are very different, the E-minor’s opening Presto exploits the contrasts between upper and lower sonorities, the articulation of the flowing passage work allowed full value by the ever-admirable Miklós Spányi’s refusal to hurry. By comparison the opening Allegro of the Sonata in B flat is a big, virtuoso movement, surging as relentlessly and purposefully as a fast-flowing mountain stream. It is followed by a simpler Largo – again taken at a judiciously moderate tempo – taken from an earlier work composed in 1766 and a final Andantino grazioso that finds Bach making a rare visit into Rococo territory.

The rondos and fantasias are all highly distinctive. The G-major Rondo has a wistful, expressive song-like principal theme, its inherently placid mood interrupted in the central episode by emphatic chords, while that in C minor is more fragmentary, with many pauses and changes of direction and mood reminiscent of the Empfindamskeit  of Bach’s Berlin years. The fantasia is the form in which Bach was perhaps happiest as a keyboard composer, the freedom it offers for the kind of ‘unmeasured’, improvisatory writing ideally suited to the composer’s poetic, proto-Romantic temperament. Both the F-major and C-major are marvellous examples of this, the latter an extended work taking the player (and listener) on a wondrous journey of rich, improvisatory character, all started by the little arpeggiated flourish answered by a ‘cuckoo call’ with which it opens.

In addition to the ‘Für Kenner und Liebhaber’ pieces the CD includes two sets of variations, one based on the German folk song ‘Ich schlief, da träumte mir’, which adds further variations to an earlier work. Neither compares with the other works included, although the Arioso sostenuto in A  with five variations, Wq 79 has considerable poetic appeal. As already intimated, Spányi’s performances on a copy of a tangent piano of 1799 are of the highest order, being both technically outstanding and displaying the kind of musicality that disarms criticism. My sporadic critical visits to this unostentatious but immensely valuable series have been uniformly rewarding, but rarely more so than on this occasion.

Brian Robins

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