By Greg Cahill | From the July-August 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
Like many string players, British Baroque violinist Rachel Podger was well acquainted with the music of J.S. Bach. But when she discovered the music of that legendary composer’s lesser known second surviving son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714–88), she was pleasantly surprised. “I came across C.P.E.’s music properly as a student while exploring music written at the court of Frederick the Great,” she says, shortly after picking up the BBC Music Magazine 2023 Recording of the Year Award and the Instrumental Award for her acclaimed solo recital album, Tutta Sola, “and it struck me that his chamber music seemed quite tame in comparison to the orchestral symphonies, which are full of extremes of drama, dissonance, and beauty.”
She had recorded some of those ancient chamber works in 2014, having performed them at a Proms Chamber Music concert. Her latest album, C.P.E. Bach: Sonatas for Keyboard & Violin (Channel Classics), teams Podger once again with longtime collaborator and pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout. It is a recording filled with lively readings and more than a few beautiful moments, showcasing an oft-overlooked composer whose work was sometimes attributed to his famous father even as he bridged the gulf between the Baroque and Classical eras.
Podger holds the Micaela Comberti Chair of Baroque Violin (founded in 2008) at the Royal Academy of Music and the Jane Hodge Foundation International Chair in Baroque Violin at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. She recorded the C.P.E. Bach works on a 1739 Antonio Pazarini violin, Genoa.
Strings asked Podger about her latest project.
What are the challenges presented by C.P.E. Bach’s music, which is seemingly simple to modern ears but really quite complex?
Yes, there are many challenges! And they are manifold with multiple layers and especially apparent in music written later on in his life. His musical style developed radically throughout his life, and for us it’s interesting to watch this development as it follows the general musical and historical development of that time as well as the individual and highly characterful development of his own musical voice.
The rise of the fashionable Empfindsamkeit— or sensibility—in the latter half of the 18th century is at the forefront in a lot of his chamber music, and you hear it explicitly in the second movement of his Sonata in B minor, Wq. 76, written in 1763. After an opening melody that looks straightforward, he starts to meander and then stop and think, and it’s as though he’s thinking out loud, sometimes flowingly and sometimes haltingly, and this within a conversation between the right hand of the piano and the violin, with the left hand of the piano providing stability with its regular continuous crotchet movement.
Multilayered emotions are present all the way through this B-minor Sonata—there’s a whimsical side to the Siciliana figure in the last movement. Playful, yes, but with undertones of melancholy and drama brought out with his succinct use of 18th-century rhetoric. All is not as it seems. The first movement of this sonata actually starts out sounding like a keyboard sonata, with its florid, rapid scales of fast notes in the right hand. When the violin enters after nine and a half bars, it’s as though nothing had occurred—the musical figuration here is in contrast to the forgone flight and is rhetorically expressive, serving the key of B minor so well in its melancholy beauty. The differences between the duo partners soon start to [diminish] during the movement, [until the instruments begin] agreeing and finishing each other’s sentences. Playing this together with Kris felt—feels—like a true dialogue with a satisfying outcome, like something was agreed upon or achieved within a discussion.
I also found myself drawn to the Sonata in C minor and its lyrical quality. What is your impression of that piece?
I adore the Sonata in C minor, with its apparent leanings toward the Sturm und Drang—literally translated as “storm and urge.” To play it feels akin to playing Beethoven, not just because of the key of C minor, but because of the breadth of the long phrases and the scope of expression. The chromatic lines swoop up and above as well as down, scooping all sorts of drama on their way to the heavens again, and the sensation is often physical. There’s drama and even passion in this first lengthy movement. And getting the balance right between letting the music play itself and actively making it speak is crucial.
The middle movement in the relative major key of A-flat major provides an idyllic sense of peace at the outset, which is enhanced by the lines in the violin at first, but turns into a tale of fractured statements and many questions. Spinning a yarn from this amazing musical material for the performer is part of the joy of playing this, and at times you feel like you have words and are a singer. This sonata ends with a movement of sheer energy and propulsion towards urgency; it’s extremely fun to play. Brahms was an admirer of C.P.E., in general, but especially this sonata, as well as the B minor, publishing his own edition of these two works.
Harpsichord and violin are similar in timbre. What are some considerations you and your partner took in performing these works?
The earlier sonatas on this disc reflect the musical influence of C.P.E.’s father, Johann Sebastian. Because he was a son of such a musical giant and master, you’d imagine it would have been difficult not to be influenced. These two sonatas we chose to play with harpsichord, as they are early works, written in the 1730s when C.P.E was in his twenties, and although he was not stylistically emancipated yet, I think you can still hear his emerging voice. Scholarly opinion is divided here: some profess these sonatas to be by J.S., and they were attributed to him with a BWV number for some time; others think they might have been composed by W.F. Bach. I’m a fan of the opinion that they might be by C.P.E. Glimpses of his emerging voice seem apparent to me, reflecting his exploration of the new Empfindsamer Stil, especially in the adagio and minuets of the D-major Sonata, Wq. 71.
What would you like listeners to take away from this recording?
A sense of discovery, also beauty and joy. And to be uplifted.