C.p.e. Bach: Hamburger Sinfonien / Christ, Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra
This is, hands down, the best version of these remarkable pieces yet recorded. Wolfram Christ, famous as a solo violist and principal in the Berlin Philharmonic, whips the strings of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra into a frenzy in the quick movements, and wrings every drop of expressive angst from the more brooding slow movements. Consider, for example, the Adagio of Symphony No. 3, ostensibly in C major, with its tritonal shrieks and desolate, almost expressionist harmonies (sound clip). It’s an amazing work, and this recording does it full justice.
The performance style is what you might call “modified period practice.” Vibrato is used minimally–a mistake, of course, but not too serious a one in this context because all other aspects of the playing are so good. More importantly, the continuo part is finally played on C.P.E. Bach’s preferred instrument in lieu of the clavichord: the fortepiano. Truth be told, we have no evidence historically that these symphonies were ever performed with a fortepiano, but then, we have no evidence of how they were performed at all.
What these interpretations reveal, though, is what Tovey said nearly a century ago: that a fortepiano is even better than a harpsichord as an accompanying instrument for the same reason it’s better than a harpsichord at everything else. The variety of touch, articulation, and above all, dynamics makes it possible to accompany the strings without suddenly turning the music into a harpsichord concerto or, on the other hand, forcing the strings to restrict their own dynamics in order to accommodate the limitations of the continuo instrument.
These considerations are particularly valid today when, first, continuo players simply can’t resist embellishing their parts in a way which is wholly inauthentic and, as often as not, unstylish, and second, recording engineers invariably mike the continuo too loudly on the theory that everything the instrument does ought to be heard on the same plane as the folks who have the tune. At least with a fortepiano, sensitively played as here, the embellishments and balance issues never get in the way of the string ensemble. It blends harmoniously and mellifluously at all times. The result is simply wonderful, and surely closer to Bach’s intentions than more avowedly “authentic” versions if only because it’s so much more musical.
The opening of the B minor Symphony (No. 5 in the set) offers an excellent example of how attractive, how modern, the music sounds when performed in this fashion (sound clip). These symphonies were commissioned by Gottfried van Swieten (librettist of Haydn’s late oratorios) in 1773. He told Bach to write whatever he wanted, without regard for conventional stylistic or technical limitations. The result is an astounding series of passionate, spontaneous, and timeless pieces that finally sound that way. Surely you will want to own this gripping, even thrilling disc.
-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
Catalog Number: 98637
Label: SWR Classic
Composer: Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach
Conductor: Wolfram Christ
Orchestra/Ensemble: Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra