Les Boréades de Montréal

C.P.E. Bach: Kammermusik

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This disc of chamber music by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is one of those releases that are worth acquiring for a single included item -- and now, with download media finally coming to grips with how to transmit classical music, users may wish to do just that. The standout find on this release by the Montreal chamber group Les Boréades is the Trio Sonata in C minor for two violins and continuo, subtitled "Sanguineus und Melancholicus" (1749). The subtitle indicates that the work depicts or embodies a debate between a hopeful speaker and a melancholy one, thus taking the general notion of chamber music as a dialogue to an unusually specific degree of realization. An unusual opening movement that alternates between little fast and slow chunks gets your attention -- and then you wonder how the composer will sustain his concept over three movements and reconcile it with the outer conventions of the multimovement classical sonata idea without repeating himself. The short answer is that some very subtle contrapuntal writing, worthy of the ingenuity of C.P.E.'s father J.S. Bach, is brought to bear in the last two movements; a fuller answer awaits the happy listener. Bach's own program reads like this: "It is a conversation between a sanguine and a melancholic who both try to convince the other until the end of the second movement, at which point the melancholic sides with the other's point of view."

The other three works on the album did not have such a pressing need for revival; two of them are late flute quartets (1788) in the Parisian manner, with intense C.P.E. Bach slow movements that have the not altogether harmonious effect of seeming to paint dark clouds over a pleasant pastoral scene. The attempt by liner note writer François Filiatrault to depict C.P.E. Bach as a kind of proto-Romantic is unconvincing; Bach was really a Baroque contrapuntist trapped in the frilly galant era and acting out with shocking chromatic moves. The ensemble uses a harpsichord in the "Sanguineus und Melancholicus" piece as befits its early date, but a rather clanky early fortepiano appears elsewhere. Keyboard performers will be interested to hear it, but general listeners may feel there was a reason that builders were constantly struggling to improve the earliest types of fortepiano. Whatever one's reservations about the bulk of the album, however, the delightfully rendered image of Bach's sunny and gloomy debaters will stick in your musical mind.

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