About this Recording
8.573424 - BACH, C.P.E.: Organ Sonatas, Wq. 65/32 and 70/2-6 (Quinn)
English 

C.P.E. Bach (1714–1788)
Organ Sonatas

 

While his father’s prowess as an organist was legendary—in 1751, a year after J.S. Bach’s death, Georg Philipp Telemann lamented, ‘Departed Bach! Long since your splendid organ-playing / Alone brought you the noble cognomen “the Great.”’—C.P.E. Bach may not have been quite so skilled. Confessing to Charles Burney in 1772 that he was so out of practice he had ‘lost the use of the pedals’, he seems not to have been a virtuoso in the manner of Johann Sebastian. Instead, he was better known for his performances on other (stringed) keyboard instruments, and especially the clavichord. Perhaps this is why he wrote relatively little music for the organ: the Wq. 70 set (comprising five sonatas and a D major prelude) as well as a handful of fugues and chorales are his only works explicitly for the instrument. That said, much of his keyboard music works equally well on the organ as on stringed alternatives such as the harpsichord or clavichord; eighteenth-century composers were by and large a practical lot, and works for the organ were never intended for a specific instrument but more generally ‘for the keyboard’.

Working from the new C.P.E. Bach critical edition, this recording features the sonatas from Wq. 70 as well as the revised version of Bach’s A major keyboard sonata, Wq. 65/32. The sonatas in Wq. 70 were written for Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia (1723–1787), sister to Frederick II (1712–1786). Frederick, known as ‘Frederick the Great’, was himself a talented flautist, and the arts flourished at his court. A passion for culture ran in the family: Anna Amalia was the most prominent patroness of her age and, like her brother, she was keenly interested in music. Indeed, her sister Ulrike once complained to their brother about the amount of time Amalia spent practising the ‘clavecin’. Amalia had strong opinions about how music should be written as well as how it should be played, and she employed Johann Philipp Kirnberger to teach her composition. Their correspondence reveals much about her tastes.

In 1755, around the time of the sonatas’ composition, the princess had a new organ built for her. It featured a wider range of stops (enabling changes in the timbre and volume of the sound) that were adapted to the latest compositional trends, particularly towards the so-called ‘sensitive’ style. Several of Bach’s organ sonatas seem designed to take advantage of the instrument’s specific qualities, and especially its range. She was intensely fond of the instrument, writing: ‘I am confident, like Orpheus who, when he played his lyre, assembled all the beasts from all around to listen to him—under my windows, on the staircase, in the corridor, every place is full of a rabble that gathers round—this amuses me, for I am giving them a spectacle gratis.’ A rather snide note attached to one manuscript featuring Wq. 70/3-6 made it clear that Amalia’s playing was less than Orpheus-like, however: ‘N.B. These four sonatas were written for a princess who couldn’t use the pedal or play difficult works, although she had a fine organ with two keyboards and a pedal built and loved to play it.’

Bach’s style in these works is expressive and fluid—he seems to delight in hiding the melody with ornamentation, flourishes and unexpected rhythms. Indeed, many scholars have suggested that they would be more appropriate for a stringed keyboard instrument than for the organ, perhaps reflecting Bach’s slight level of discomfort with the more unwieldy instrument. The upper voices display a free, vocal approach typical of Bach’s galant-style music, but the pieces are also tempered by older, more traditionally organ-like techniques.

From Wq. 70, only the A major and B flat major sonatas were published during Bach’s lifetime. Although the market for printed keyboard music boomed throughout the eighteenth century, works for the organ were never remotely as popular as those for stringed instruments. There are obvious practical reasons for this—few middle-class homeowners would have had an organ installed in their drawing room—but the organ was also inextricably associated with sacred music and the church. This may be why the B flat major sonata was published in a collection designated for the ‘clavecin’ more generally—sneaked in under the radar, as it were.

The Sonata in A major, Wq. 65/32, was originally composed in 1758 but revised later. It begins with a joyful Allegro, where a mobile, flexible upper voice trills above a simple bass before ending in a cadenza. The contrasting second movement, an Andante con tenerezza in triple time, is full of dotted rhythms and mournful ornamentation, while the final Allegretto returns to the tenor of the opening.

The first movement of the Sonata in G minor, Wq. 70/6, an Allegro moderato, uses tropes more typical of traditional organ music. Its series of suspensions and restless rhythms create an uneasy mood. The second, a harmonically adventurous Adagio in E flat major, is also rather melancholy, despite the overall major mode. It is followed by another Allegro back in G minor, in which the skittish voices trade motifs between the hands.

The Sonata in D major, Wq. 70/5, also calls upon the organ’s sustaining power (inherently superior to any stringed instrument, where the sound immediately begins to die away once a note is struck): the first movement, an Allegro di molto, makes highly effective use of long-held chords and chains of dissonance. An Adagio e mesto follows, now in G minor, then a bright and energetic Allegro.

The opening passage of the Sonata in F major, Wq. 70/3, begins with striking dynamic contrasts, and the movement as a whole is full of dramatic pauses, repeated notes and emphatic chords. The C minor Largo is altogether more muted and mournful, using sighing gestures, chromatic bass lines and falling tones. The triple-time Allegretto, by contrast, uses rising sequences and dotted rhythms to produce a light, cheerful affect.

The Sonata in A minor, Wq. 70/4, is another work with a stormy first movement, also featuring wide dynamic and textural contrasts, chromatic movement and rapid figuration. The Adagio that follows has an expressive, highly ornamented melodic line reminiscent—as with so many of C.P.E. Bach’s works—of vocal music, while the closing Allegro returns to the mood of the first movement.

The Sonata in B flat major, Wq. 70/2, begins with a relatively mellow Allegro enlivened by delicate ornamentation in the melodic line. The movement is followed by a stately Arioso in E flat major, which makes good use of held notes, and a bright, quirky Allegro full of insistent repeated chords, syncopation and playful runs.

Ironically, it seems that Anna Amalia did not particularly like Wq. 70—although she was an inveterate collector of scores, only one sonata from the set was included in her library. Her view is not widely shared today, however. Bach may not have been a virtuoso on the pedals, but he was evidently well aware of how to exploit the organ’s capabilities, and his music for the instrument is exquisite: as one contemporary noted in 1755, his playing combined ‘the deepest secrets of art with everything that taste treasures’. The works gathered on this recording, though lesser known than most of his other sonatas, feature many of the lively eccentricities and imaginative melodic decoration that have made his work enduringly popular.

Caroline Waight


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