Déjà Review: this review was first published in April 2008 and the recording is still available. Brian Wilson passed away in 2021.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788)
Complete Keyboard Concertos Volume 16
Concerto in D, Wq27 (H433), second version, for harpsichord, 2 horns, 2 flutes and strings (1750, revised 1770s) [23:30]
Sonatina in B-flat, Wq110 (H459) for harpsichord, tangent piano, 2 horns, 2 flutes and strings (1762-4?) [13:10]
Concerto in a minor, Wq21 (H424) for tangent piano and strings (1747, revised 1775) [29:53]
Miklós Spányi (tangent piano and harpsichord, direction)
Menno van Delft (harpsichord: Sonatina)
Opus X Ensemble/Petri Tapio Mattson
rec. 2006, Siunto Church, Finland
BIS BISCD1587 [68]

This is Volume 16 of BIS’S complete recording of C.P.E. Bach’s Keyboard Concertos. With some 52 concertos and 12 sonatinas, there would seem to be quite a few volumes yet to come –  19 in all?  Earlier volumes have received such general praise that it is almost superfluous for me to comment.  See MusicWeb review of Volume 14; we seem to have missed out on Volume 15.

The works here range over the period from 1747 to 1764, when C.P.E. was working for Frederick the Great, though Wq21 was revised in 1775 for a Hamburg audience.  The notes indicate that Wq27 was also revised for Hamburg, without specifying a date.  With three quite different works, showing C.P.E.’s response to the changing circumstances of an age of change, this CD could well serve as an introduction to the whole series.

The Sonatina in B-flat, like several of C.P.E.’s works, is designated for ‘two cembalos’.  When such works are played with two harpsichords, it is very difficult to distinguish between the two solo parts.  Such is the case in a version of the Double Concertos, Wq46 and Wq47, as performed by Gustav Leonhardt and Alan Curtis with the Collegium Aureum under Franzjosef Maier on an otherwise recommendable recording: Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 05472 77410 2, budget price, coupled with the Sonatina, Wq109.

This BIS recording obviates the problem by using instruments with different timbres, a tangent piano and a harpsichord.  This practice is further justified by the fact that in at least two of the surviving 18th-century manuscripts the parts are labelled ‘Piano-Forte’ and ‘Cembalo’.

Photographs of the keyboards of the two instruments employed for this recording are shown in the booklet.  The harpsichord was designed by Jonte Knif after several surviving 18th-century instruments and built by Arno Pelto.  I would have liked to have seen photographs of the whole instruments and to have been told to what pitch they were tuned.  Judging from our review of Volume 14, the notes to that CD contain details of the tangent piano, which was made by Ghislain Potvlieghe in 1998.

I would also have liked to have seen more information for non-specialists in the otherwise very detailed notes about what kind of beast the tangent piano is – an early form of piano in which the strings are struck by slips of wood like the jacks of a harpsichord, rather than by hammers (see article in Concise Grove).

The other two works on the CD are divided between these two solo instruments, with the harpsichord employed for Wq27 and the tangent piano for Wq21.  In the notes Miklós Spányi explains his reasons for his choice of instruments; though he believes that most of the keyboard concertos from this period sound better suited to the early piano, he feels that Wq27 is more convincing on the harpsichord.

Spányi’s decision to perform Wq27 on the harpsichord is certainly justified in the context of this recording.  A substantial and extrovert piece, it never outstays its welcome in this performance and the bright sound of the harpsichord contrasts well with the orchestral timbre.  C.P.E.’s orchestral writing often sounds much fuller than that of his contemporaries and such is the case here – at first the impression is that the recording balance over-favours the bass, but the same is true of many of C.P.E. Bach’s works.  The main exceptions are the Cello Concertos where he lightens the orchestral texture in contrast with the solo instrument.

Grove describes the tangent piano as producing a beautiful sound.  My colleague Kirk McElhearn, in his review of Volume 10, agreed with this description but felt that the instrument was too soft-toned to stand as a concerto soloist.  I did not feel that this was the case in the Sonatina where, as indicated, the use of piano and harpsichord allows us to hear how the two soloists weave around one another and the orchestra in a way which a performance with two harpsichords or two fortepianos never could.  Perhaps Opus X and the harpsichordist, Menno van Delft – and the engineers? – make greater allowance for the instrument.  It appears, too, that Spányi changed to another tangent piano with effect from Volume 14.

Don’t be fooled by the description Sonatina – this is a concerto in all but name; C.P.E. wrote some twelve pieces with this appellation, differing from his concertos only in being rather shorter and lighter, though the two horns and two flutes make the sound of this Sonatina quite substantial.

Though composed within three years of the D major concerto,Wq27, that in a minor, Wq21 is a very different kind of work, much more in the galant style.  The sound of the tangent piano here is entirely appropriate.  I am normally a much greater fan of the harpsichord than of any variety of fortepiano, but I was won over by the sound of this instrument.  My only reservation was the thought that it might have been more appropriate to have switched the order of the two concertos.

I had not encountered Opus X before – earlier volumes in this series, prior to 2004, were made with Concerto Armonico and Péter Szüts.  Founded in 1995 by Petri Tapio Mattson, their first artistic director and still their leader, with Miklós Spányi as their current director, Opus X’s accompaniment here is all that one could wish.

The excellent soloist, Miklós Spányi, is also concurrently recording for BIS C.P.E.’s complete solo keyboard music, likely to run to over 35 volumes – see MusicWeb review of the latest, Volume 17.

Apart from the DHM CD to which I have referred, there is very little in the way of alternative versions of C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard concertos.  The review of Volume 14 mentions two alternatives.  With performances like these, however, the shortage of choice is hardly to be regretted.

The covers of these BIS recordings are not the most exciting imaginable, but what they lack in excitement they make up for in good taste.  Apart from the omissions which I have noted, the notes are as recommendable as the performances.  With excellent recording, especially on the brighter of my two systems, this latest volume may be approached with confidence.

Brian Wilson

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