Friday 7 March 2014

CPE Bach Anniversary Concert

Florilegium photo credit: Amit Lennon
photo credit: Amit Lennon
CPE Bach Anniversary Concert: Florilegium: The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 6 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Wit and charm in this survey of CPE Bach's instrumental music

CPE Bach is 300 this year and this fascinating composer is being celebrated with a number of events. Ashley Solomon and Florilegium got the celebrations off to lively start with their all CPE Bach concert at the Wigmore Hall on 6 March. Intentionally showcasing the range of CPE Bach's writing, their programme encompassed a string symphony, solo flute sonata, quartet, trio sonata and the concerto for harpsichord, fortepiano and orchestra with soloists Geoffrey Govier and Terence Charlston.

CPE Bach (1714 - 1788) was the second of JS Bach's song and was one of the most talented and the most able to assimilate and overcome his father's influence. CPE Bach's career took in an early (and not entirely successful) period as harpsichordist to Frederick the Great of Prussia, followed by a post as director of music in Hamburg. CPE Bach's music is an important development in the change from Baroque to Classical. Not only was he an important influence on the young Mozart, but he was a significant early exponent of the idea that performance should be based on Empindsamkeit (Sensitivity), a movement which was an important precursor of Romanticism.

CPE Bach's Symphony in A major W1.182 No.4 is one of a set of six symphonies commissioned in 1773. In three movements (fast, slow, fast) and written for string and harpsichord, this is by no means a simple work. The opening movement was attractively varied with a number of CPE Bach tropes which would occur in other pieces during the evening, notably his delight in contrasting extremes, so we had alternations of texture, speed and volume, with tutti moments followed by sections for smaller groups, loud quickly following soft and faster sections suddenly grinding to a halt. The result could have been a bit disparate, but was made very appealing by the six players (Catherine Martin, Tuomo Suni, Ylvali Zilliacus, Jennifer Morsches, Carina Cosgrave and Terence Charlston). The slow movement is marked Largo ed Innocentamente, and was slow but not simple, with an appealingly complex melody. The finale was a brisk, up tempo movement with the strings bringing a nice bounce to their busy parts.

CPE Bach's Flute Sonata A minor Wq.132 was written in 1747, whilst he still worked for the flute playing Frederick the Great. The sonata is for solo flute, with no continuo accompaniment; this means that CPE Bach has to use a number structural devices, challenging to the player, to make the piece work. Ashley Solomon took all the sudden wide leaps and changes of dynamic in his stride, giving us a poised and fluent performance with a lovely gentle, soft-edged tone to his flute. The opening Poco Adagio was full of gentle melancholy, whilst the middle movement Allegro reminded me of JS Bach's badinerie. The final Allegro was full of rather appealing stop/start moments in the tempo.

CPE Bach's  Quartet in D major Wq.94 was written for the unusual combination of flute, viola, cello and fortepiano (played by Ashley Solomon, Ylvali Zilliacus, Jennifer Morsches and Geoffrey Govier). The work was written in the last year of CPE Bach's life, around the same time as the concerto for fortepiano and harpsichord. The fortepiano in the quartet plays a very equal role, gone is the sense of continuo filling in, instead the player is the equal of the others. One notable feature of the texture of the quartet was the way that there was no filling in, in the way that composers of the previous generation would have written such a piece. This was a real quartet and not a trio sonata in disguise.

The opening Allegretto was a lovely graceful movement, with the players bringing a very sympathetic interplay to CPE Bach's alternations of texture and tempo. The movement marked Sehr langsam und ausgehalten started with no obvious break from the previous one. It had a lovely Mozartian feel to it (after all Mozart was over 30 when it was written). The busy and breezy Allegro di molto had a delightfully improvised feel to it.

After the interval the group played his Trio Sonata in C minor W1.161 'Sanguineus and Melancholicus. The first movement depicts a dialogue between two characters, Sanguineus and Melancholicus, impersonated by violinists Catherine Martin and Tuomo Suni. The first movement dialogue enabled CPE Bach to use a great deal of strikingly sudden disjoints between the lively Sanguineus and the slower, more antique sounding Melancholicus. The abrupt changes in the music were nicely articulated by the two violinists, clearly having great fun, whilst cellist Jennifer Morsches and harpsichordist Terence Charlston provided the rather schizophrenic accompaniment.The perky second movement had the conclusion of the dialogue with Melancholicus losing the argument and joining Sanguineus.

The final work in the programme brought the whole ensemble onto the platform, two flutes, strings and horns accompanying harpsichord and fortepiano. CPE Bach was a great admirer of the harpsichord and when he wrote his Concerto in E flat for harpsichord and fortepiano Wq.47 the harpsichord was on its way out. Though commentators have written about the robust competition between the two soloists, in fact as played by Geoffrey Govier and Terence Charlston the result was delightful dialogue. It was clear that throughout the work CPE Bach was indulging in his love of interesting orchestral textures. The opening movement started with a long instrumental tutti, in which solo violins alternated with full ensemble before the two solo instruments come in and develop a lively dialogue, with moments for each to show off. The Larghetto middle movement had a lovely unfolding melody with long lines from the soloists punctuated by contributions from the ensemble, giving us moments of drama. This was a very characterful movement, with quite a downbeat ending. The concluding Presto had rather a hunting call feel to it. The players and soloists contributing considerably to the work's charm and wit.

This was a lovely introduction to the wide variety of CPE Bach's instrumental and orchestral writing. Ashley Solomon and Florilegium gave us playing of great wit and charm, with much sympathy for CPE Bach's style. The audience were treated to an encore, a movement of Telemann as a taster for Florilegium's next concert at the Wigmore Hall.

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