Saturday 14 December 2019

Rule-breaking music that inspires you and empowers you: Tamsin Waley-Cohen and James Baillieu on CPE Bach's sonatas for violin and keyboard.

Tamsin Waley-Cohen & James Baillieu recording CPE Bach at Snape
Tamsin Waley-Cohen & James Baillieu recording CPE Bach at Snape
Violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen and pianist James Baillieu have just recorded CPE Bach's complete works for violin and keyboard, a set 10 sonatas and fantasias which span a significant portion of the composer's life. And the disc has just been released on Signum Classics. Whilst CPE Bach's keyboard works are moderately well known, his music for violin and keyboard is less so, and for both artists it was very much an exploration of new territory. I recently met up with Tamsin and James to find out more.

Tamsin Waley-Cohen & James Baillieu - CPE Bach - Signum Classics
Born in 1714, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach was the fifth child and second (surviving) son of Johann Sebastian Bach and his first wife Maria Barbara Bach, and the composer Georg Philipp Telemann was the child's godfather. Having studied with his father, in 1738, CPE Bach entered the service of Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia (later King Frederick the Great),  becoming a member of the royal orchestra on Frederick's accession, and CPE Bach remained in post in Berlin until 1768 when he succeeded his godfather, Telemann, as music director in Hamburg. It is from these Berlin years that the sonatas for violin and keyboard date, covering a period of 30 years up to the 1760s. The earliest ones pre-date the composer's time in Berlin, but he revised them in the 1740s. And we can imagine CPE Bach performing them with a member of the court orchestra.

For Tamsin, a lot about CPE Bach is interesting, whilst his music is affectionate and human. She started to come across his music more and was intrigued by his influence on Mozart and later composers, Mozart said of him, "Bach is the father, we are the children." He was a noted keyboard player, and James pointed out that Beethoven was heavily influenced by CPE Bach's notable treatise on keyboard technique. This sparked their interest in CPE Bach's own music.  The solo piano music is well-known and there are some lovely flute pieces, but much of his output is beautiful yet not recorded much.

They found it valuable to put him into historical context, as the sonatas date from the most liberal years of the Enlightenment and CPE Bach was involved with key writers and thinkers such as Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Moses Mendelssohn and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. This was a period which put great value on the individual and on free will, all of which can be detected in CPE Bach's music, and which still felt pretty relevant to our own world.

In the earliest of the violin and keyboard sonatas the influence of CPE Bach's father (with whom CPE Bach trained) and of his godfather, Telemann, can be significantly felt. But then the music moves closer to Mozart and beyond. CPE Bach effectively rebelled against the highly structured music of his father, and music from CPE Bach's mature years reflects his desire to break the rules.  James and Tamsin point out that even in Mozart sonatas, structures are quite formal and you know what you are going to get, but with CPE Bach the structures are looser, rules are broken and his audience must have been shocked at some of the things they heard.

CPE Bach
CPE Bach
As with most violin sonatas of the period, Tamsin admits that the instrument plays more of a supporting role. Whilst the music is written quite naturally for the violin, the virtuosity is in the keyboard, CPE Bach's own instrument. But CPE Bach works with the natural tonalities of the violin and there is nothing that does not work, so he clearly had a definite understanding of the instrument.

Whilst Tamsin and James listened to a number of period performances, they made a conscious decision to perform the music on modern instruments. Because CPE Bach was such an innovator, and because instruments were changing so much during the period when he wrote the sonatas, they felt there was no fixed historical position to take, and in some ways the music almost needs modern instruments. CPE Bach was indeed fascinated by the technical development of the keyboard and wrote a concerto for harpsichord and fortepiano. During the same period, Tamsin points out that there was no standard violin bow, players constantly experimented.

That said, they had CPE Bach's own treatise to refer to when it came to ornamentation. And their performances were very instinctive. For Tamsin, when playing chamber music even though you have fundamental knowledge about the music as a base, it is important to trust your instincts. Both agreed the music was very improvisatory, very in the moment. They feel that the music was performed with knowledge of historical issues, and with a great deal of heart.

For James, CPE Bach's loose structures can look ahead beyond the classical era to the music of composers like Schumann. This is particularly true of the Fantasia, his final work for violin and keyboard which is almost stream of consciousness, and James felt the music did not live as much when played on the harpsichord.

Tamsin and James's duo partnership came about because they did a recital together at Aldeburgh, and Tamsin felt that the CPE Bach project would work well with James, particularly what Tamsin described as his delicate touch and sense of storytelling. Until approached about the project, James did not know much about CPE Bach but found that the music suited his personality and way of performing.

Imitative harmonization of the family name, B-A-C-H, autograph entry by C.P.E. Bach in an album of Carl Friedrich Cramer (June 9, 1774). Courtesy of the Universitätsbibliothek Kiel
Imitative harmonization of the family name, B-A-C-H,
autograph entry by C.P.E. Bach in an album of Carl Friedrich Cramer (June 9, 1774).
Courtesy of the Universitätsbibliothek Kiel
They recorded the music in two groups of sessions a month a part (there is a total of 153 minutes of music on the discs) and did performances before the recordings which both found really helped, particularly in getting people's reactions to the music. And during the sessions they did a lot of listening, to get the sound they wanted. The recordings were made at Snape Maltings, which both agree is a lovely place to work. For James, the piano (a Steinway) was particularly special as it is rather older and has more of a soul than some. Both credit the record producer, Nicholas Parker, and the sound engineer, Mike Hatch, as being key to the process too.

The discs have received positive reviews, and both performers hope that their release will trigger opportunities for more live performances of the music. They want people to hear the music and be touched by it. James adds that he would like to see the pieces becoming mainstay of the concert platform. Whilst some are technically hard, many of the early ones are very suitable for young performers.

They found performing the music great fun, with a great deal of to-ing and froing, questions and answers. They felt that its freedom and rule-breaking empowered the performer. It was music to relish, music which inspires you.

Looking ahead, when we spoke Tamsin was just about to head off to Belgium and the Netherlands for concerts, and then in the New Year she will be busy with the Albion Quartet (the second disc of their Dvorak quartet discs is due out shortly), as well as some exciting solo projects. James was just back from New York where he had made his Carnegie Hall debut, and was about to head off to his native South Africa for Christmas. In the new year he was recitals at the Wigmore Hall with Tara Erraught, Allan Clayton and Julien van Mellaerts

CPE Bach - Complete Original Works for Violin & Keyboard; Tamsin Waley-Cohen & James Baillieu; Signum Classics - available on-line

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