C.P.E. Bach: Berlin Symphonies (CD review)

Hartmut Haenchen, Kammerorchester C.P.E. Bach. Brilliant Classics 94777.

It seems that every few years we go through a C.P.E. Bach renaissance. C.P.E comes and goes in the public's consciousness, and these days he appears to be in again. With that in mind, I thought it of interest to review this 2014 Brilliant Classics reissue of a spirited 1985 Capriccio album of C.P.E. Bach's Berlin Symphonies from Maestro Hartmut Haenchen and the C.P.E. Chamber Orchestra.

Carl Philip Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) was the eldest of Johann Sebastian's several musically inclined children (actually the fifth child and the second son), and, more important, he's the one who gets most of the attention today. C.P.E. falls into the transition period between the Baroque and Classical eras, and thus we find elements of both styles in his music. His own approach to music combined the best of both worlds, although he leaned toward what critics of the time called the "sensitive style"; that is, one that expressed "true and natural" feelings with sudden contrasts in mood as opposed to the more-popular "rococo style" that emphasized simplicity and immediacy of appeal.

In any case, the present disc contains five of the nine symphonies C.P.E wrote while living in Berlin (1738-1768). A booklet note tells us that audiences of the day tended to judge the worth of a composition on its degree of novelty, and "the widespread acclaim that C.P.E. Bach won all over Europe was due in large measure to his originality and wealth of invention." In the words of musicologist Jan LaRue, "Once a Bach symphony has got under way in the usual fashion, some intriguing detail may 'crop up' any moment: a forbidden dissonance, a mighty thunderclap, a headlong rush downwards, an abrupt change of tempo or a surprising modulation." And so it goes with the five symphonies on Maestro Haenchen's disc.

The works included are the Symphony in E flat, Wq179 (H654); Symphony in F, Wq181 (H656); Symphony in C, Wq174 (H649); Symphony in F, Wq175 (H650); and Symphony in E minor, Wq178 (H653). Haenchen and his chamber orchestra play the works on modern instruments, but they provide sparkling performances--buoyant, breezy, and well judged.

I suppose I would have liked hearing these works played on period instruments; I've gotten used to such things over time. Still, given the modern instruments employed, it's quite pleasurable, and, of course, listeners who don't like period instruments will find it exactly right. The sound of the ensemble is smooth, elegant, and refined, whereas period instruments would have given the sound a slightly rougher, more-rustic quality.

That said, Maestro Haenchen's performances of these little three-movement symphonies are lively and invigorating, providing much charm in the process. They bustle with good cheer, vitality, and brilliant playing. There is nothing lax about the slow movements, either; indeed, if anything, Haenchen takes them a tad too quickly for my taste. But he is imaginative, keeping Bach's invention foremost in mind, and sometimes that requires a fairly vigorous and flexible tempo.

In the Symphony in F (H656), for instance, the last of the Berlin symphonies Bach wrote, Haenchen pounces on every contrast and every turbulent characteristic he can find, emphasizing them with zest. In the Andante, he maintains a strong forward momentum, and in the concluding Allegro assai he provides a welcome sense of fun.

And so it goes. I can't say I really loved any of these symphonies, despite Bach's attempts at doing daring things for his day and the critical acclaim he received. The music continues to sound rather too much the same to me, a bit too formulaic. (H650 sounds the most modern, "modern" for the times in any case.) Nevertheless, I can't imagine this music being any better played than it is here, unless maybe, as I've said, the orchestra had played it on period instruments.

The C.P.E. Bach Chamber Orchestra made the recording for the Capriccio label at Christuskirche Berlin in March 1985, with producer Heinz Wegner and recording engineer Hartmut Kolbach taking care of the technical details. Brilliant Classics reissued the disc in 2014. The orchestral sound seems a tad bright, but there's no questioning its clarity, openness, and air. I liked how well the detail and definition come through, and I enjoyed hearing the ensemble's scope and depth and dimensionality, even if it comes at the expense of some small degree of natural warmth.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa