Wigmore Hall July 2014

I must confess to a certain distaste for “themed” concerts and have always wondered why they are expected with a certain imbalance in the world of period instruments when a pianist can simply play what he likes. Accordingly, I have endeavoured when I can to avoid this approach to recital programming. Nonetheless, in looking over this evening’s programme, I realise that most of the pieces I am playing derive their logic from the marriage between organised tones and the arts of prose and poetry. From the placements of the tiniest ornament and distribution of accents, Couperin’s harpsichord music represents the apotheosis of French declamation mixed with poetic forms as translated into music. The freer works of the Bachs, on the other hand, derive their respective narratives from the art of textual egesis as it was perfected in Protestant Germany. Even the fugues from J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier really transcend the realm of counterpoint exercises because of the rhetorical, even theatrical nature of the way Bach handles his subjects and the narrative he spins from the juxtaposition of thematic elements. My view of this music is by no means a fantasy out of step with the thought of the past, and one is indeed quite struck by the emphasis on declamation given in Classical texts known by figures such as the Bachs. There can be no doubt that to many of these composers instrumental music was considered to be different but not inferior to vocal music in terms of affective power.

The f#-minor ordre of Francois Couperin which opens this recital comes from that composer’s last collection of harpsichord pieces. Published in 1730, the fourth book, by Couperin’s admission, saw repeated delays in publication due to the composer’s chronic bouts of poor health. This may explain the title of the opening allemande, La Convalescente. This piece speaks with the melancholy of the old man wistfully looking back on life, and in its closing bars Couperin evokes the image of someone ready to meet his creator. Even the gavotte, which is the one expressly titled dance movement, has something of the crestfallen about it. The remaining three pieces display the theatrical side of instrumental music in the age of Louis XV – and this is the style of which Couperin was the undisputed master. The capricious La Sophie refers not to the female name nor to Greek wisdom, but rather to the Safavid shah of Persia, who was popularly known as the “Sophy” (a corruption either of “Sufi” or of the medieval ancestor of the Safavids, Safi al-Din). Most likely Couperin would have known the term from Mocquet’s celebrated journals of his eastern travels in which he referred to the “Grand Sophy Roy de Perse” (1643). In the perpetual motion of rings of semiquavers we can hear the twirling of Sufi mystics that so entranced Europeans intrepid enough to venture to the Islamic world. The following rondeau, L’Epineuse, possess the affective power of the eponymous poetic form which builds in intensity with each repetition of the refrain. The transition to the parallel major is, as the late Wilfrid Mellers described it, a moment of “spiritual illumination.” The typically French tendency toward theatrical despondency gives way to a sincerity and simplicity which for a brief flicker shows us the Couperin behind the court finery and wig. The concluding La Pantomime takes its inspiration from the commedia dell’arte which had made its away over the Alps to become all the rage in mid-eighteenth century Paris. But Couperin’s clown is, perhaps, more than a bit witty; the brusqueness and percussiveness of the harmonic clashes suggest something a bit sinister. Here is the Rococo version of coulrophobia – a fear of clowns!

The next set opens with three pairs of preludes and fugues from the first book of Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (1722). According to J.S. Bach’s disciples, composition on the first book of the famous “48” started whilst the composer served time in a Weimar prison for having insisted too strongly on his being dismissed from the ducal service to accept a position elsewhere. Whether or not that story is true, however, the collection taken as a whole does have the quality of something akin to Boethius’ ”Consolation of Philosophy,” another jail-time tome. In the preludes in d-minor and B-Major, we hear Bach the teacher as he instructs us in the art of improvisatory preludising on a given pattern, which is the modus operandi set out from the very first prelude in C-Major. Zuzana Ruzickova, who has played the “48” for over half a century, has always told me that all of the preludes are, in a sense, variations on the first. This is perhaps less obvious in the prelude in c#-minor, which is really a sad Loure, an old Norman dance known to be ceremonious and somewhat pastoral. The fugues in d-minor and B-Major – in three and four voices, respectively – are based on dance-like subjects which are both transformed by inversion in that unique Bach approach to creating seemingly new material from what is already there. The grand c#-minor fugue in five voices, however, is all Boethius, who writes:

Wings are mine; above the pole
Far aloft I soar.
Clothed with these, my nimble soul
Scorns Earth’s hated shore,
Cleaves the skies upon the wind,
Sees the clouds left far behind.

There are those who see in this fugue and its subjects elements suggesting the Passion of Christ, in particular with reference to the first subject of five notes in pairs of semitones which suggest the pattern of a cross. Those five tones are said to represent the five wounds of Christ, and interestingly the Trinity is said to be represented by the three subjects. These three subjects represents the idea of “three in one and one in three” since only the principal subject has a proper exposition while the other two are “imperfect.” More than any other work save the Art of Fugue (BWV 1080), the “48” shows Bach as a unifier of Reason and deeply-felt spirituality.

The toccata in f#-minor (BWV 910) comes from Bach’s youth, when he was more obviously a disciple of Buxtehude and Reincken; indeed, the piece really looks back to the seventeenth century and to what was known as the “stylus phantasticus.” While it is called a toccata and derives its genesis from the works of Girolamo Frescobaldi – a god-like figure to the keyboardists of the Baroque period – Bach’s toccata is more like that composer’s variation canzonas which juxtapose free-style sections with various metrical permutations of one principal subject. In the case of BWV 910, the main theme is a chromatic form of the descending tetrachord which from the early Baroque period had connotations with lament and sadness. Interestingly, the theme first makes its appearance in a subtle way, arising from the conclusion of the opening flourish. The chromatic tetrachord is first stated, in minims, in combination with a highly declamatory and angular counter-motif. This leads the listener through such depths of feeling as to suggest the “Descensus Christi” (the descent of Christ – into Hell), referenced in the Lutheran Formula of Concord: “we believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to Hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of Hell, and took from the devil all his power.” This is followed by a spiky fugato in three voices on a completely different theme, and then another prose section. Finally, Bach gives us the summation of all that he thinks of the chromatic tetrachord with a vigorous concluding fugue in 6/8 metre. The general effect is one of great erudition infused with earthiness – Bach the impetuous youth, the juvenile virtuoso who offended employers and raised eyebrows amongst the stuffy establishment. This is the Bach I most closely identify with.

Concluding the first half is the second of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s first printed set of keyboard sonatas. Published in 1742, these sonatas were dedicated to Emanuel’s employer, the newly-crowned Prussian king Frederick II (who had not quite yet earned the epithet “the Great”). Alas, in spite of being the dedicatee of such excellent music, Frederick seems to have not appreciated his young court harpsichordist. Rather, the precocious young monarch was a bit of what we would now call in London society a “hipster” – trendy, entitled, and not at all original in his tastes. His affections were reserved for the pleasantly fluffy music of his court composers Johann Joachim Quantz and Carl Heinrich Graun, which goes to show that genius in one area does not quite transfer to other ones. But, well, a true Bach composes for himself and for God, and Emanuel was certainly no exception. In fact, from the first notes of this sonata, we hear that this is not a man given to the merely pleasant or indeed fluffy. Practically every phrase is interrupted or taken into unexpected territory by an unprepared dissonance or a moment of rhetorical “questioning” as Emanuel Bach leaves a train of thought hanging. If we are expecting a Mozartean scheme whereby each bit of seemingly structural material has a logical conclusion and is repeated at the “right” moment, we shall not find it here. The Adagio shows some of the first stirrings in published music of what was to become known as “Empfindsamkeit” (sensibility), which is broadly characterised by sudden changes of mood and the unprepared introduction of dissonances. In the very first bars of this movement, so angular are Emanuel Bach’s peregrinations on every semitone and chromaticism that it’s rather surprising to see that we’ve only managed to arrive at the dominant. Quick shifts between the manuals of the harpsichord suggest a bizarre sort of dialogue between two emotive states. The third and closing movements takes a more playful tone, with melodic activity defined by leaps and flourishes over large intervals. C.P.E. Bach’s tendency toward wordiness can be heard in the codas on the upper manual which close each half. To the modern mind, they are “unnecessary” and even frivolous, but they add a quality of wit and humour which demonstrate the unique personality of this composer.

The second half of the evening’s programme opens with music by a composer who was one of the first disciples of the younger Bach (incidentally, we could count Haydn and even Beethoven in that exalted company). The Bohemian Jiri Antonin Benda – known in the German-speaking world as Georg Anton Benda – came from a family almost as distinguished as the Bachs and the Couperins for producing musicians. His brother Frantisek was one of the most important violinists of the day and served at the court in Berlin alongside Emanuel Bach. I am personally inclined to consider the musical language of Benda’s Six Sonatas of 1757 as being directly influenced by C.P.E. Bach, though it lacks the shock value of the latter’s more emphatic harmonic clashes. Benda’s keyboard style has the same quality of a declamatory stream-of-consciousness in its basic narrative, however. We hear a charmingly short attention span in the first movement of the F-Major sonata, as Benda follows a new motif after only half-developing another. The Largo has the quality of a recitativo accompagnato. A sparsely-accompanied single voice opens the movement, singing an imaginary text of despair. In the sixth bar, we hear the orchestra enter, first in full ensemble and then reducing to a pair of flutes with violas and ‘cellos. Here is a piece of such theatrical intensity as one hears in Leonore’s famous soliloquy in Fidelio (“Abscheulicher! wo eilst du hin?”): “Romantic” in the eighteenth-century sense, never destroying form and maintaining a sense of tension which is never broken. The third movement, a presto in 12/8, suggests a disposition airier than that of Emanuel Bach. There are classic moments of Empfindsam mannerisms, but in general the moments of uneasiness quickly revert to the spirited character of the opening. As in the closing movement of C.P.E. Bach’s B-flat sonata, quiet codas conclude each half in the manner of witty afterthoughts.

At first, Toru Takemitsu might seem like a figure completely out of place with the rest of the composers in this programme. His music does not depend on traditional forms or functional harmony, nor does it have any direct antecedents in post-tonal or serialist music. His focus on texture and on creating a sense of freely-moving material reflects what might be considered, if one is in a benignly Orientalist frame of mind, a typically Japanese fascination with the asymmetrical and unpredictable in nature. While his earlier works show an unorthodox attitude toward dissonance, his compositional activity in the 1980s took a pointedly consonant turn with the “Waterscape” and “Dream” cycle in which “Rain Dreaming” is the last piece. Of these cycles, Takemitsu himself remarked: “my intention is that these pieces pass, through different metamorphoses, through the sea of tonality, as the water circulates in the universe.”

Written in the 1740s and published in Berlin in 1763, C.P.E. Bach’s f#-minor sonata exemplifies the awkward position of mid-eighteenth century musical language with respect to the heaviness of a Baroque legacy sitting on its shoulders and the cries of an iconoclastic artistic soul experimenting with new means of expression. The conflict between fantasy (prose) and declamation (poetry) found his father’s Chromatic Fantasia (BWV 903), for instance, is essentially paraphrased in the first movement of this sonata, as the first few bars of virtuosic running figures leads immediately to a vocal texture – as though accompanied by high strings, perhaps – declaiming an unspecified text. This, in turn, leads back to the element of fantasy, and the entire movement operates on this basic premise. The declamatory parts of the movement are characterised by a degree of affectation in its ornaments and various melodic rises and falls, and the fascination of Enlightenment man with the ever-changing colours of human emotion is ever-present in the way Emanuel Bach deprives the listener of the satisfaction of any real resolutions. The graceful second movement is written with a trio texture in mind. Perhaps Emanuel was recalling the evenings of chamber music at the court of Frederick II, when he and Quantz and Frantisek Benda would play the latest scores for small ensemble.  The two upper voices exist in a state of complete equality and even competition with one another as each responds to the other’s rhetorical queries. The concluding third movement resembles a polonaise in the generally overstated nature of its gestures and accents. The exaggerated refinements and flowery manner of the Polish style, much cultivated by Baroque composers for its associations with the exotic, are well-suited to the quirkier elements of Emanuel’s musical personality.

It is mind-boggling to think that this music was being composed while old Johann Sebastian Bach was still very much alive. Perhaps it is time to revise a few of our notions about music history and the prescriptive boundaries drawn to make it easier for us to understand. If we discard the strictures placed on our thinking and hear the music within the context of its time, then, as Arnold Dolmetsch wrote, ”we can no longer allow anyone to stand between us and the composer.”

© Mahan Esfahani
London, June 2014 .