An evening of C. P. E. Bach’s symphonies & concertos – Roger Norrington conducts OAE

C.P.E. Bach
Symphony in G, Wq182/1
Harpsichord Concerto in C, Wq20
Symphony in G, Wq173
Symphony in E, Wq182/6
Cello Concerto in A, Wq172
Symphony in E flat, Wq197

Steven Devine (harpsichord)

Richard Lester (cello)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Roger Norrington

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 3 March, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Sir Roger NorringtonFour symphonies and two concertos, a fair sampling of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s output, one notable for its sheer individuality and quality: music bridging the Baroque and Classical eras and even at times being on the cusp of Romanticism. It might have been a strings-only evening, but the lads and lasses of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment guided by a genial Sir Roger Norrington made this a colourful, varied and revealing concert.

Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-88) was Johann Sebastian Bach’s second surviving son. He studied law but inclined to music, and if his three decades as harpsichordist to the flute-playing Frederick the Great were artistically frustrating – steady and heady employment though – it was in his later years that C. P. E. was able to become his innovative self as a composer.

Of the concertos played here, the expansive one for harpsichord is affluent with ideas and numerous orchestral asides, and the slow movement has many sublime turns of phrase. Steven Devine, otherwise supplying continuo for the concert, stepped forward to give a poised and sensitive performance of the solo part on the mild-voiced and smooth-sounding harpsichord – miles away from Beecham’s skeletons-copulating quip. Also from the ranks, Richard Lester gave an accomplished rendition of the cello concerto, with vibrato and with cordiality, the gut-stringed cello’s plaintive sounds ideal for the dark and harmonically adventurous slow movement, akin to a sacred aria. In both concertos, the OAE’s collegiate response added to the pleasure.

All the chosen symphonies have, to various degrees, their share of surprises, not least the composer’s propensity to stop abruptly and move straight into the next movement. Within these seemingly innocent three-movement designs there is much to tease, delight and move. To open the evening, the G major Symphony’s first movement proved exuberant, angular and full of harmonic surprises; but, then, the other G major piece opens in folksy and rustic style. The opening of the E major work points to Joseph Haydn, the first movement lyrical and playful, and the E flat piece rallies the listener with its energetic brilliance. The rather lovely slow movements sometimes recall Handel.

These arresting performances were zestful and accurate, full of pizzazz and beauty. Roger Norrington relished the music’s bombshells, silences, eloquences and also its dynamism – here’s a composer that knew his pp from his ff, the bits in between and how to set up tension between them. Norrington’s expressive gestures painted this appetising music and the OAE was a very responsive canvas.

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