Early Music Reviews C.P.E. Bach, Sonatas with Basso Continuo

“Oleskiewicz’s engaging and informative introduction places the pieces in their chronological framework and evaluates the historical and musical features of each.”

By NANCY HADDEN(Early Music, 2010)
Excerpted from the full review entitled “Flute music from the Bach circle”
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, The Complete Works: series II, volume 1: Solo sonatas, ed. Mary Oleskiewicz (Los Altos, CA : Packard Humanities Institute , 2008), $20

…[Here] under review is one of the many volumes currently appearing in the series Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: The Complete Works, an ambitious, brave and enlightened publishing project of the Packard Humanities Institute, in cooperation with the Bach-Archiv Leipzig, the Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig, and Harvard University. Their goal is ‘to make available, in both printed and digital formats, a critical edition of the composer’s works’, to be completed by 2014, which is the 300th anniversary of Emanuel’s birth. Series II, the Chamber Music (general editor, Peter Wollny), encompasses the solo sonatas, trio sonatas, works for obbligato keyboard and one or two solo instruments, and miscellaneous chamber music.

Most of Emanuel’s chamber works were written for private music-making: the early ones were perhaps for the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig or other student music societies, whereas by 1740 he was almost wholly engaged in writing music for the Berlin court of Frederick the Great of Prussia, where he stayed for nearly 30 years. In 1768 he assumed a new position in Hamburg, where he continued to write important solo and chamber music, unfettered by the demands of the Prussian king.

Volume I of Series II is edited by authoritative scholar and Baroque flautist Mary Oleskiewicz. It comprises 16 solo sonatas, mostly belonging to the Frankfurt and early Berlin periods. By far the largest number of C. P. E. Bach’s solo sonatas were written for the flute, probably to supply the flute-playing Frederick the Great with repertory. One is for unaccompanied flute, and eleven more are with basso continuo. Further sonatas include one each for oboe and harp, two solos for viola da gamba, and a fragment of a lost violoncello sonata. Oleskiewicz’s engaging and informative introduction places the pieces in their chronological framework and evaluates the historical and musical features of each. Of particular interest is her discussion of the Sonata for Harp, Wq139, written in 1762, when there was little music written specifically for the instrument. The chromatic notes and complex ornaments point to the single-action pedal harp as the most plausible instrument. Oleskiewicz points out that modern editors and performers have treated the piece as an unaccompanied work, even though the original bass line is fully figured; she argues that Wq139 requires a second instrument to supply the basso continuo realization, leaving the harpist free to perform the melody and the bass line. The sound of harp accompanied by a harpsichord or fortepiano (could a cello or gamba also take part?) is an enticing combination to imagine, and one hopes that the availability of this excellent edition will inspire more harpists to perform this piece as it was intended.

Matters of performance practice are clearly and carefully considered in light of C. P. E. Bach’s own instructions from his two-part keyboard treatise, Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu Spielen (1753 and 1762). The editor fully explains the articulation marks, ornaments and improvised cadenzas — prefaced by the amusing observation that Emanuel himself complained that most of the ornament symbols used by keyboardists are not generally understood by other musicians, even though these same ornaments are ‘ essential ’ to both instrumental and vocal music. Although the likely choice of continuo instrument is not specified by Emanuel in the sonata scores, in Part II of the Versuch he makes his preference clear: the ‘ most perfect accompaniment ’ to a solo sonata is a keyboard instrument with a cello. Oleskiewicz points out that it is puzzling that in four of the five solo sonatas for flute from before 1740, the bass line descends below C, the lowest note of the cello. After 1740, the bass line never goes below C. It is possible that Emanuel had a seven-string gamba in mind for accompanying these early flute pieces, or the keyboard alone. This is a likely hypothesis, since the gamba, with its transparent sound, makes a good partner for the flute. As for the choices of keyboard, they were numerous in Germany during the 18th century, including double-manual harpsichords and fortepianos; even clavichords are known to have accompanied flutes and violins in intimate chamber music settings.

The sources used for the edition are fully evaluated in the critical notes. No autographs survive for any of C. P. E. Bach’s solo sonatas; until recently, the most important collection of his solo sonatas was that made by Johann Jakob Heinrich Westphal (1756 – 1825), who purchased a number of works from Emanuel’s widow. A second complete set of Emanuel’s eleven flute sonatas, copied by Johann Heinrich Michel, came to light with the recovery of the Berlin Sing-Akademie archive in Kiev in 1999. Described by Emanuel’s daughter as ‘the best copyist available’ , Michel made more accurate and more carefully produced scores, which Oleskiewicz has utilized as principal sources. I am pleased that the editor has chosen a single source as the basis for all of her own musical texts, rather than the dubious practice of some editors who conflate several sources to produce a patchwork which cannot be fixed in time or place to any original edition.

The Packard Institute editions are amazing value, beautifully printed on heavy paper, richly bound and extraordinarily reasonably priced. Perhaps the most welcome and innovative feature of this collected works is its access to downloadable links from their website, www.cpebach.org, making available, at no charge, performing parts, table of ornaments, digital facsimiles and the Versuch . These editions of C. P. E. Bach truly represent an age of enlightenment!

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