A program entirely devoted to the music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was presented as part of the Boston Early Music Festival’s 2010-2011 season by Roger Norrington and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on Tuesday evening, March 15th, at Sanders Theater, Harvard University.
The second son of Johann Sebastian Bach, who was his sole teacher, C.P.E. Bach not only saw to the preservation of his father’s musical legacy but enjoyed a brilliant and influential career of his own. For nearly thirty years he served as harpsichordist to the flute-playing Frederick the Great of Prussia before succeeding his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann in Hamburg as Kantor of the Latin School and music director in five churches, a position similar to the one his father had held in Leipzig. In addition to his church music for Hamburg, he composed songs, chamber music, harpsichord concertos, symphonies, and, as an internationally admired keyboard virtuoso, a vast amount of solo keyboard music that was much admired by Haydn and the young Beethoven. His Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments is to this day the standard guide to eighteenth-century keyboard technique, accompaniment, and improvisation as well as aesthetics.
C.P.E. Bach is considered the foremost exponent of the so-called empfindsam, or highly sensitive, style cultivated in northern Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century. Characterized by abrupt changes of mood, melodies and rhythms patterned after rhetorical speech, and minute gradations of dynamics, the style was associated particularly with solo music for the clavichord and the early fortepiano, both instruments capable of subtle gradations in dynamics and tone color not available on the harpsichord. Tuesday’s program centered on Bach’s “public” works, symphonies and concertos intended for a concert stage and a large audience rather than an intimate salon. Yet even in these works, his idiosyncratic approach to form and expression was evident. The Symphony in G that opened the program is one of six composed in 1773 for Gottfried van Swieten, the Austrian ambassador to the Prussian court, whose Viennese concerts of music by Emanuel and Sebastian Bach inspired Mozart’s interest in counterpoint. The first movement opens fortissimo, followed by pianissimo writing in which remote harmonies are already introduced. Norrington and the twenty-two highly skilled players of period stringed instruments made the most of the dynamic contrasts, sudden shifts of mood, and abrupt transitions heard throughout the three movements, following one another without interruption.
The orchestra’s harpsichordist, Steven Devine, who provided essential but barely heard harmonic support from the back of the orchestra’s inverted “V” formation during the symphonies, was the soloist in the early Harpsichord Concerto in C Major. The beautiful instrument by D. Jacques Way, modeled after an original by Henri Hemsch in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts collection, was moved to the front of the stage and its lid raised, projecting the sound forward and incidentally offering the audience a view of the exquisite painted landscape on its underside.
The concerto’s opening orchestral ritornello was repeated closely by the harpsichord. Thereafter, the solo episodes became progressively more complex as well as more expressive, virtuosic flights of fancy punctuated by sober interjections from the orchestra. In the second movement, Adagio, the harpsichord part was full of the expressive sighing motives typical of the empfindsam style. Lively exchanges between harpsichord and strings in the finale, Allegro assai, culminated in a virtuosic and improvisatory cadenza for the soloist, beautifully played.
The third work on the program, another Symphony in G major, is Bach’s first known symphony. Light in tone but energetic, the first movement is full of upward sweeps that end suddenly in midair. The second movement, almost Handelian in its pastoral tone and full of expressive offbeats in galant style, was followed by a graceful Allegretto. After the intermission we heard the Symphony in E major, the sixth of the Van Swieten set. Opening with a graceful antecedent/consequent phrase, the first movement immediately launches into modulatory excursions. A recitative-like passage leads directly into a tonally diffuse Poco Andante, concluding with a quirky finale, Allegro spiritoso, played staccato with a single cantabile interlude.
Richard Lester was the soloist in the Concerto in A major for Cello and Orchestra, which also exists in parallel versions for flute and for harpsichord. The second movement, Largo con sordini (muted strings), opened with an aria for violins and violas in unison, punctuated by cellos and basses. The cello then took the lead, spinning out the motives of the aria melody in dialogue with the orchestra, ending with an impassioned cadenza before the somber conclusion. Thanks to Lester’s exquisite playing, this was the expressive highlight of the evening. The Presto finale was a perpetual motion flight of triplet arpeggios with capricious interruptions.
A joyous Symphony in E flat Major concluded the program with an opening Prestissimo full of unexpected turns, followed immediately by a lyrical Larghetto, and concluding with a Presto in “hunting horn” triplets.
Founded in 1984, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is one of the top ensembles performing a varied repertory of Baroque and classical music on period instruments. They have never had a permanent conductor, and have worked not only with specialist conductors but also with “mainstream” conductors, beginning with Charles Mackerras and Simon Rattle, a collaboration that has helped bring “early music” approaches to performance — crisp articulation, livelier tempos — into the mainstream. Along with a very high level of skill, the energy and enthusiasm of the group, their apparent joy in music making without pretentiousness or solemnity, are infectious. Sir Roger Norrington has been bringing his keen insight, and again, infectious joy, into performances of “early” orchestral music for nearly five decades. Perhaps in an effort to stress the volatile and capricious nature of C.P.E. Bach’s music, he indulged in some mannerisms Tuesday night — prolonged hesitation before the final downbeat of a movement, exaggerated pauses mid-movement — that could be effective when used sparingly but as routine gestures became trite. But none of this could seriously detract from a fascinating tribute to an composer honored more in reputation than in practice, music that deserved to be heard and enjoyed.