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Lebrecht's Album of the Week

Laid-back Bach

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Württemburg sonatas (ECM)


The senior composer among Bach’s sons waited more than two centuries for his work to be taken up by a famous interpreter and, when it was, the recording was left in a can for 30 years. The US jazz pianist Keith Jarrett does not play by the normal rules of engagement but this, even by his standards, is off the scale. Jarrett says on this release: “I heard the Württemberg Sonatas, recorded by harpsichordists. And I felt there was space left for a piano version”. 

Fair enough, but why — having made the recording at his New Jersey studio in May 1994 — did he wait half a creative lifetime to release it to the world? This is a record that cannot be judged by content alone. Too many human enigmas intrude.

Emanuel Bach was 30 years old and a staff musician at the court of Frederick the Great when he wrote these sonatas for clavichord with the intention of touring them himself. Overshadowed by his father, Emanuel was credited for his own achievement only in the last two decades of his life when he succeeded Georg Philip Telemann as Kapellmeister at Hamburg. Choral music and small symphonies were his forte. None of his children followed him into music.

The keyboard sonatas, veering from French to Italian style and back, are elegant to the point of frivolity. What is missing is any evidence of profundity, at least in the performances that I have heard down the years. Jarrett makes no pretence of doing more than playing the copious notes on the page. His reading is agreeable enough, but wearing after a while. There is a sameness to C P E Bach that his father would never have tolerated. Almost everything on these two discs is at one emotional level and the level is set rather low.

That said, if I were director of the Salzburg Festival or the BBC Proms I would leap at the chance of having Keith Jarrett play late-night C P E Bach. He would bring an audience and set of expectations to the classical arena. He might even sound more energised in concert than he does on this puzzling album. And C P E Bach would be thrilled to have him onside.

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