Forward-looking quartets by CPE Bach

According to one contemporary, CPE Bach’s quartets for clavier, flute, and viola were “whimsical, with crazy leaps, clownish modulations and often childish turns, together with the affectation of profound scholarship, all very finely teased out.”

Wellll yes and no.

Carl Philip Emmanual Bach wrote these quartets shortly before his death in 1788. They came at the end of a long and productive career. And while the quartets may have puzzled that reviewer, Bach certainly knew what he was about when he wrote them.

During his lifetime music had moved from the high Baroque style of his father to a new aesthetic. The classical era of Haydn and Mozart represented a change in musical form, in instruments, and in instrumentation.

In a way, that transition is reflected in the names of the works. They’re scored for three instruments; transverse flute, viola, and clavier. They’re named quartets because the new-fangled clavier fills in the role of the older harpsichord/cello basso continuo. Many musicians would expect such a quartet to feature two solo instruments plus accompaniment. And that’s sort of what happens here.

While the nomenclature looks backward, the music looks ahead. Those crazy leaps and clownish modulations embrace the new classical style of Mozart and Haydn in a way that is uniquely Bach’s. While his contemporaries may not have heard it, there is an elegant balance to these quartets.

Kudos to the performers. The transverse flute has a soft sound that can sometimes muddy the melody. Not so here. Linde Brunmayr-Tutz plays with clarity and assurance. Ilia Koral plays a period viola, which can sometimes have an edge to it. Koral keeps it under control, creating a beautiful sound.

I usually don’t like the sound of the early fortepiano. The action always seems to be too noisy and the tone quality problematic. Wolfgang Brunner plays wonderfully, though his playing only minimizes — not negates — the mechanical sounds of the instrument.

Still, if you want to hear these works as Bach envisioned them, this is the recording to go with. If you enjoy early and middle Haydn, then you’ll appreciate the quality of these works — and the performances.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Quartets for clavier, flute, and viola
Linde Brunmayr-Tutz, transverse flute; Ilia Korol, viola; Wolfgang Brunner, fortepiano
Hänsler Classics HC16016

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