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C.P.E. Bach: Sonatas for Keyboard and Violin

Sonatas for Keyboard and Violin
C.P.E. Bach: Sonatas for Keyboard and Violin
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Like thousands of beginning piano students before me, I was given C.P.E. Bach’s Solfeggio in C Minor (“Solfeggietto”) to learn. He composed his “little study” in 1766 and published it in 1770, well into a prolific career. It trains the ability to smoothly execute rapid 16th-note arpeggios using overlapping hands without interrupting the melodic flow. But its 34 bars contain many hallmarks of the composer’s mature style: whiplash rhythmic and melodic reversals, dramatic contrasts of texture and tempo, and a quirky wit.

The present album contrasts two sonatas written in the 1730s by the younger Bach while still under his father’s Leipzig mentorship with two from the 1770s displaying the qualities that made him a popular success—and an acknowledged influence on Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Bezuidenhout employs a harpsichord for the keyboard part in the two early sonatas, while the later ones, and the central Arioso con Variazioni, feature a fortepiano. These choices reflect the development of C.P.E. Bach’s expressive palette. Both fortepiano and clavichord, on which he was a renowned improviser, offer a greater range of dynamic shading and tone color.

Podger and Bezuidenhout have performed together frequently over the years, although this is their first recording together. Their long partnership has included exploring this repertory. In 2014, the tercentenary of C.P.E. Bach’s birth, they played a critically praised program at the BBC Proms that featured the C-Minor Sonata recorded here. That sonata, prized by Brahms, offers many of the album’s numerous highlights: an opening movement with real pathos and a swirling chromatic theme, a poignant slow movement in which the two instruments spiral around each other with the delicacy of butterflies, and an exhilarating, playful finale. It also requires supreme virtuosity from both players.

But as recording engineer Jared Sacks wrote to me, these two musicians are “above technique.” In an online promo video, the two emphasize the need to fully inhabit the pieces to keep their stylistic idiosyncrasies from sounding “crazy.” In the later sonatas, Bach notated his extensive ornaments, of the kind a skilled performer might have improvised a generation earlier. The trick is therefore, as Bezuidenhout says, to make the work sound spontaneous and alive, as if the players “are making it up on the spot.” Indeed, the pair’s responsiveness to each other’s inflections of timing and tone mirrors that of the best jazz improvisers.

After more than 30 recordings together, Podger, Sacks, and producer Jonathan Freeman Attwood trust each other implicitly. Bezuidenhout, Sacks writes, added “very specific wishes and very keen ears!” Their painstaking effort in capturing the sound of these inspired performances has produced my favorite, and possibly the finest, of the duo sonata albums I’ve heard.

The album was recorded in DSD 256 and mixed in DXD. I auditioned a 24/192 PCM file from distributor Outhere Music and a DSD 256 file sourced from NativeDSD.com (which also offers the DXD file). While both are superb, in my system the DSD 256 version offered slightly better characterization of timbres and a more convincing spatial illusion.


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