Classical CD Reviews

C.P.E. BACH: Keyboard Sonatas, Vol. II = Sonata in F-sharp Minor; Sonata in E Major; Sonata in C Minor; Sonata in A Major; Fantasie in F-sharp Minor; Rondo in D Minor – Danny Driver, piano – Hyperion

Having shed the “learned” affections of his father, C.P.E. Bach cultivated a “sensitive” and dramatic style that pianist Driver finds completely sympathetic to his own virtuoso ambitions.

Published on July 19, 2013

C.P.E. BACH: Keyboard Sonatas, Vol. II = Sonata in F-sharp Minor, H37; Sonata in E Major, 39; Sonata in C Minor, H121; Sonata in A Major, H135; Fantasie in F-sharp Minor, H300; Rondo in D Minor, H290 – Danny Driver, piano – Hyperion CDA67908, 73:38 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

C.P.E. Bach (1714-1788) reacted against what he considered the “learned style” of his illustrious father, J.S. Bach, in order to establish a more direct manner of expression, the empfindsamkeit style, which might be construed as the “emotional” or “sensitive” style. “He juxtaposes moments of introspection with outbursts of anger, sets off contrasting short motifs with abrupt silences, explores widely divergent rhythmic figures, and indulges in melodic and harmonic surprises.”  CPE Bach’s keyboard compositions number some 300, many experimental in nature, walking a fascinating tightrope between Baroque chromaticism and the burgeoning Classical “galant” style.

Pianist Danny Driver (rec. 19-21 January 2012) opens with the arresting 1744 Sonata in F-sharp Minor, whose first movement Allegro offers a nervous toccata in running sixteenths, complemented by a more gracious theme which a sense of metric displacement also figures. Both fanciful and impetuous, the movement suggests a level of virtuosity in the composer’s arsenal we may have too long underestimated. The ensuing Poco Andante in D Major, by contrast, proffers gracious refinement of taste, two echoing treble voices set over a persistent bass. Favoring binary form, Bach sets the final Allegro assai as a brilliant study in dotted rhythm and sudden harmonic shifts preceded by pregnant pauses. A kind of antiphon evolves between competing registers, playful as well contrapuntal, especially in the use of diminished triads.

The lithely muscular 1744 Sonata in E Major seems a perfect cross between the Scarlatti and Haydn styles, especially in the first movement’s large forte chords that suddenly drop to piano as the rhythm slows. Once more, Bach inserts pregnant caesuras that interrupt the melodic line dramatically. Lovely articulation and bold coloration from Driver in this movement, particularly in his alternate staccato and legato phrases.  The second movement, an Andantino in E Minor, carries a strong Baroque affect, quite reminiscent of alla musette Scarlatti. What distinguishes the music are the harmonic surprises, and the dotted interjections that supply a dramatic, decidedly operatic, punch. Bach marks his last movement Vivace di molto, a ¾-time  parody of galant-style dance forms, like the minuet. Wit and audacity combine inventively for this rhythmically accented, vibrant jaunt, whose relationship to both Scarlatti and Soler might be worth an essay.

The 1757 Sonata in C Minor presages Beethoven in several respects, especially since its slow movement, Andantino pathetico, points directly to the slow movement of Beethoven’s G Major Piano Concerto.  This dark work incorporates a series of dramatic contrasts – opening with an imposing Allegro assai ma pomposo - as its unifying gesture, the chromatic line’s invoking as much Weber as it does Haydn. The aforementioned second movement contrasts large, declamatory masses of sound against a solo voice, somewhat reminiscent of Bach’s Italian Concerto as much as it anticipates Orpheus’ taming of the Furies in Beethoven. The last movement, Allegro scherzando, returns to the Scarlatti model, although the sudden fortes and four-note militancy inject a (Mediterranean) vitality well in advance of that master. The contemporary A Major Sonata (c. 1758) invokes Mozart in an ornamental mood. The contrasts here lie in the alternate registers and sudden flurries and runs as opposed to declamatory elements. The first movement Allegro also employs prior to the coda a cadenza whose harmonically “circuitous routes” warrant repeated listening. To solidify the “classical” pose of this work, the latter two movements, architecturally speaking, rely on eight-bar phrases. Marked Andante con tenerezza, the slow movement plays with cadences, pauses, and variation form in idiosyncratic, imaginative fashion. The application of the so-called “Scotch snap” as a rhythmic device in the (Allegretto) finale keeps our ears alert, especially as Driver executes the various reverse dots with extraordinary polish.

The last two works on Driver’s program exploit the late, imaginative style of Bach, especially his 1787 Fantasie in F-sharp Minor. Likely an improvisation for Bach’s favorite clavichord, the huge piece projects a tragic intimacy quite refined through its episodic structure, some of which, Allegretto, becomes a bravura showpiece, even a toccata. When the Largo section enters in 12/8, the contrast and innigkeit of the work become disarming, often sounding like the composer, Schumann, who would best exploit this affect. The Rondo in D Minor (1785) reverts to the harmonic daring and uneasy affection of his earlier style, despite Bach’s awareness that rondos in general were quite the (burgeoning Classical) mode. Starts and stops, changes of mood, impulsive outbursts, all conspire to keep our attention riveted on this most unpredictable inventor of musical motifs, whom only Beethoven would adequately rival in a later generation.

Extremely fertile Steinway piano sound comes to us courtesy of recording engineer Arne Akselberg.

—Gary Lemco




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