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Briefly Noted: MAH takes on CPE

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C.P.E. Bach, Sonatas and Rondos, Marc-André Hamelin

(released on January 7, 2022)
Hyperion CDA68368 | 141'01"
The keyboard music of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach can be a hard sell, often rendered either too understated or too flashy. It is music that tends to work best on instruments more like what the composer heard when he played it. Marc-André Hamelin has done something quite difficult, recording over two hours of selected pieces, mostly sonatas and rondos, on a Steinway last January and doing so with consummate style. Hamelin's impeccable virtuosity gives him the range of touch to capture the quicksilver emotional shifts in this music. For example, the varied movements of the Fantasia in C Major, with its comic back-and-forth of buffo repeated-note gestures, never descend into glibness. Hamelin approaches the more sentimental slow movements with equally earnest sincerity, which is also an advantage in the way he plays Liszt. It works so well because he wears his heart on his sleeve.

The best tracks on these two stellar discs are the curiosities, like the Sonata in E Minor, which is actually a five-movement suite of dances based on and quite reminiscent of his father's prelude-less French Suites. Another highlight is the Abschied von meinem Silbermannische Klaviere, in einem Rondo, a musical leave-taking of his beloved Silbermann clavichord, bequeathed to his pupil Ewald von Grotthuss in 1781. In one sign of how recently appreciation for this Bach son's music has come, this piece was not widely known until it was finally published in the 1980s. It explores the expressive possibilities of this gentle instrument, the contrasts of loud and soft, the pointed accents, even the ornamental vibrato effect possible on it, which Hamelin can only approximate.

Hamelin mines a number of odd character pieces for their beguiling quirks, vivid portraits of people who mostly cannot be identified. At first one wonders if the C Major Arioso with nine variations was worth including, but it heats up wonderfully around the charming fourth variation, set in the parallel minor. Hamelin delights in the circus-like tricks of the subsequent variations, too. Finally, added like encores are two miscellanea likely familiar to all denizens of after-school piano lessons: the rollicking Solfeggio in C Minor and the perky March in G Major (a piece of juvenilia, once wrongly attributed to the elder Bach, included in the Anna Magdalena Notebook).

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