FL 2 3133

Bach: Suites, Sonatas, Airs & Dances

Release date October 02, 2001
Album code FL 2 3133
Periods Baroque

Album information

The Music of JS Bach and CPE Bach

In his book “Empire and Communication,” the renowned Canadian historian Harold Innis took the view that “codification” as a historical phenomenon, permeates a society with “harshness” or “rigidity” in matters of culture, jurisprudence and politics at certain points in its history. In the musical culture of the last century, the grand piano has become the standard instrument in the performance of JS Bach’s keyboard works, and the keyboard works of CPE Bach have generally been ignored until the end of the 20th century.

JS Bach was a fearless transcriber, innovator and “synthesist” of the international musical styles of his time. His designation of “clavier” was inclusive and could have meant either the harpsichord (manuals and stops), clavichord (single manual, no stops, metal tangents) spinet or virginal (single manual, plucked by quill). This outlook places him directly into the modernist camp where rigidity is unwelcome and ideas, strength of imagination and issues of practicality lead an artistic vision.

Accordingly, Bach’s flexibility in his own instrumental designation invites a broader, more coloured palette both sonically and interpretively. The musicologist Phillip Barford notes that CPE Bach explored the dynamics of fusion and tension as it applied to tonal opposites in the sonata allegro form, and that it was his imagination that created new rules of fusion while exploring the vitality of antithesis.

This disc explores the enormous geography of a musical landscape carved by a father and son within the space of less than seventeen years (1725, 1727 and 1742). It was a music orginally based on binary form that was found and developed in suites, sonatas, airs and dances. The choice of the accordion is in perfect keeping with the spirit of the work of the Bachs, both father and son. JS Bach was always alert for new sounds and fresh instrumentation.

CPE Bach’s sonatas require a tone and keyfeel of the clavichord, a sensitive rubato, and an expressive palette prepared to exploit light and shade. The accordion is an instrument able to create and satisfy all these qualities; it can illuminate the works of both composers and provide the listener with a new musical experience.

English Suite No. 3 in G Minor

The English Suites were written between 1717 and 1725. Not as homogeneous as the later keyboard collections, they remained unpublished but were written out in fair copy and collected and set in their final order in 1725. Forkel states that the works were commissioned for an Englishman, an assertion confirmed by the words “fait pour l’Anglois” written in a manuscript belonging to Johann Christian Bach.

To distinguish them from the shorter French Suites which followed in the 1720s, the English Suites are known as the six Great Suites. The English Suites are significant structurally in that Bach created monumental preludes, sarabandes and gigues of great length and scope—a distinct departure from the French model period. Further, Bach’s legendary fugal skill and disposition elevated the suite to another level not found in the more homophonic French model. He also notated all aspects of ornamentation with an unprecedented consistency and precision.

The prelude, allemande and courante, as mentioned before, all have unique innovative format and compositional touches. The sarabande is the most original, profound and impressive of any sarabande by Bach. Highly chromatic and expressive, the movement has a completely modern colouring. The final chord expresses a longing that only an accordion can create. Bach’s gavottes have a toughness and narrative power which allows for a sinewy performance; but Bach goes even further and adds humorous touches—again, a significant departure from convention. In the gigue, Bach’s harmonies create an impetus which suggests a cadenza just before the end of the B section repeat.

French Suite No. 2 in C Minor

The French Suites were written between 1721 and 1724. They metamorphosed through various key structures, finally coming to rest in the order they are found in today. The French Suites give the impression of being more suave than the English Suites. There remains an inventiveness in the French Suites which bespeaks the free, individual treatment of movements. This approach informs all the movements: a declamatory allemande, a courante modelled on the Italian version, a gentle arioso for the sarabande and a gigue with a virtuostic display of baroque ornamentation.

The Prussian Sonatas

CPE Bach (1714-1788) was the second and most famous son of JS Bach. He wrote these sonatas when he was only 26, when their formal organization was already a concept which he then impregnated with dynamic and subjective material. As Phillip Barford points out, “there is nothing new in Beethoven’s first sonata which does not appear in the Prussian Sonatas by CPE Bach.” “Sonata form” as developed by CPE Bach was an elaboration of binary form known to JS Bach, (notably in the English and French Suites and the Partitas), the French clavecinists, and Handel; but the thematic difference was muted in the latter, and the modulation scheme was given greater import in the former.

All CPE Bach’s keyboard works are particularly well suited to the evocative sound quality of the accordion. Contrasting themes, ornamentation and the inherent lyricism of the works highlight the strengths of the concert accordion, which also help to further illuminate the work of CPE Bach.

Prussian Sonata No. 2 in B flat Major

The B-flat Major Sonata exhibits a high degree of integration. The running passages found in a breathtaking development section presage similar developmental devices found in many sonatas by Haydn and Mozart. The Adagio has a baroque recitative quality with a cadenza, and the final Allegro bespeaks a mature compositional personality—irregular phraseology, harmonic re-interpretation and consistent melodic writing are all hallmarks of a mature classicist.

Prussian Sonata No. 6 in A Major

The final sonata in the Prussian collection is written on a grand scale. A dramatic and powerful composition, it consists of a rather short, but dramatic, adagio between two significant outer movements. The development of the first movement is particularly interesting as there is a combination of harmonic divergence, melodic freshness and an almost improvisatory feeling throughout. The Adagio is integrated into the broader structure of the work, with thematic and intervallic affinity with the opening and development of the 1st movement, with the obligatory solo cadenza. The Allegro finale deals exhaustively with a figure which begins as a two-part counterpoint and which is linked structurally to the first movement by the melody Sol, Fa, Mi, Re, Do, in a heavily augmented version of the original.

As modernists, both JS Bach and CPE Bach allowed imagination and ideas to chart new territory. The inspiration for this album came from their flexibility and fearless search for new sounds and structures which allowed a more profound artistic expression. So the accordion is in good company indeed; and not in spite of its geography, but because of it.

© Joseph Petric, July 2001

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