Listen to keyboard music by Bach (no, not that one)
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Listen to keyboard music by Bach (no, not that one)
The pianist Marc-André Hamelin at his home in Waltham, Mass., Sept. 4, 2020. The extraordinary range of C.P.E. Bach, a son of J.S., is on display in a new album from the pianist Marc-André Hamelin. Kayana Szymczak/The New York Times.

by David Allen

NEW YORK, NY.- The subject of pianist Marc-André Hamelin’s latest album is Bach — no, not that one.

Hamelin — ever inquisitive in exploring the outer reaches of the repertoire, with recent releases of music by Sigismond Thalberg, Samuil Feinberg and Erno Dohnanyi — has now turned to the extraordinary range of keyboard works by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Sebastian’s second surviving son.

C.P.E. Bach was a prolific composer and an important pedagogue, a significant influence on Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. (Hamelin’s new album is a welcome companion to the three volumes of solo Haydn that he set down, with ideal panache, a decade and more ago on the Hyperion label.) But if he was more widely appreciated than his father well into the 19th century, that has certainly not been the case more recently.

In part, that’s because C.P.E.’s category-defying scores challenge preconceptions of the history of music as it has come to be written — coming off as stunningly, even unnervingly, experimental. When did the “Baroque” end, and the “Classical” begin? What constitutes “early music”? The work of C.P.E. Bach invites us to consider these questions anew, suggests the harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, who has recorded some of this music and wrote the booklet notes for Hamelin’s two-disc set.

Hamelin takes us from a juvenile march C.P.E. wrote before 1725 to two of the extended, improvisatory fantasies he composed just before his death, in 1788. Asked in an interview to pick a favorite page from the scores, Hamelin chose the “Abschied von meinem Silbermannischen Claviere, in einem Rondo” (“Farewell to My Silbermannischen Clavier, in a Rondo”), a haunting tribute to a favorite clavichord in 1781. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: Even for adventurous pianists like yourself, the music of C.P.E. Bach is not exactly common. How did you pick it up?

A: My wife, Cathy Fuller, is one of the hosts at WCRB radio in Boston, and back in either 2008 or 2009 she played one cut from Mikhail Pletnev’s Deutsche Grammophon recording of C.P.E. Bach. It was a little sonata in E minor; it’s three movements, very compact, about seven or eight minutes. The piece ends suddenly, in the middle of a phrase. Bach just decides to end it on a tonic first inversion, which was a total shock to me. You just have to look at Gesualdo to see how far some composers could go even very early in history, but this was really quite a shock.

By coincidence, I had just inherited a collection of scores which included six volumes of music that C.P.E. published very late in life, in the 1780s, for “connoisseurs and amateurs.” So I ran to the music, and, sure enough, that’s exactly what C.P.E. was asking for — no diminuendo, no rallentando, nothing. Naturally I wanted to find out more, so I started reading from the six volumes, and then I bought everything I could find. I became very, very enthusiastic; the idea to record some of these things was always in the back of my mind, but it took a while for me to get the wheels in motion.

When I started talking about this project, with no recording date in mind, I got a very nice email from Paul Corneilson of the Packard Humanities Institute. He said, “We have an 18-volume set of the complete keyboard works in urtext editions; would you like one?” What had been a project involving one CD became two, because of the embarrassment of riches I was confronted with.

Above everything else, I wanted to underline the richness of Bach’s imagination. I would like to plead with pianists to look him up; it’s never been easier.

Q: So what distinguishes his music?

A: The element of angularity, and surprise, and constant delight in the unexpected was very much a part of Haydn, and he confessed that he owed a great debt to C.P.E. Bach. There are some extremely daring modulations, and what I mentioned before is not the only time he just decides to end a piece. In the slow movement of the F minor sonata I recorded, the middle section keeps modulating, keeps modulating, keeps modulating — and then suddenly cuts off at a very tense moment, very foreign to the home key. Then there’s three long beats of silence, and he just decides to go back to the beginning, with no clear relationship between the two keys.

I’ve seen editions which have “corrected” this to make it more palatable, more normal. One that I found, actually, was by Hans von Bülow, and you wouldn’t believe the butchery job he performed on C.P.E.’s music; it’s unbelievable. For a while, there wasn’t much more than that available.

Q: Bach was writing at a time of great technological change, as harpsichords and clavichords were giving way to fortepianos, a shift that allowed composers to develop new means of expression. How would you respond to those who might argue that this music should therefore only be performed on the instruments of its time, rather than a concert grand?

A: I grew up with the modern piano, and it affords me all the pleasure, all the fulfillment, all the musical results I want. So, as much as I appreciate sometimes playing an old instrument — and I have, not necessarily in public — the music survives being played on the modern piano. For me, that’s enough; I don’t need anything else. There are so many possible sonorities on the modern piano that, for me, that’s perfectly fulfilling.

Q: Technological change is in fact the subject of your favorite page, the middle page of a rondo that Bach wrote in 1781 as a farewell to his long-serving clavichord.

A: It’s an extremely affecting piece; I remember during the recording session I must have been in a hurry to get to it, because it was the first piece that I put down.

In the exact middle of it there is a moment: There’s a fermata, and then suddenly this E major chord. This E major chord is not something really outlandish, because you’re coming out of B minor. But if you leave the right amount of silence before it, and if you pay particular heed to the quality of the attack of this chord, that’s one of the most magical moments that I’m aware of in all of music.

I read that C.P.E. apparently said to the gentleman to whom he gave this Silbermann clavichord it’s absolutely impossible even to play the piece on a clavichord other than this one. (C.P.E. had had it for around 35 years, I think, so it was a very sad farewell.) But fortunately I paid no attention to that. It’s interesting to know, and it shows you the power of his convictions, but it’s a denial of the possibilities that are obtainable on something like the modern piano, or any other instrument.

Q: Funnily enough, the score repeatedly notates an ornament that simply can’t be achieved on a modern piano: a bebung, which is a form of vibrato. Do you just have to ignore that, and accept that the piano will make amends in other ways?

A: I just tried to compensate elsewhere. What carried me through is the image of C.P.E. possibly improvising this piece, and then later notating it, because it really does sound like an improvisation — like playing for himself.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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