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Calculated Instability: The Pioneering Sonatas Of C.P.E. Bach

The special effects in Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's music helped forge a new cutting-edge style.
De Agostini/Getty Images
The special effects in Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's music helped forge a new cutting-edge style.

If Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote a dull piece of music, I've not yet heard it. And even if there is a workaday piece or two lurking within his 300 keyboard sonatas, you certainly won't find it on this new album by British pianist Danny Driver, who deftly uncovers the surprising restlessness of the music.

C.P.E. was the second eldest of Johann Sebastian's four musician sons and arguably the most brilliant and influential. Scholars today consider him to have been the most prominent keyboard player and pedagogue in Europe when, at age 54, he became music director of Hamburg, leaving behind a nearly 30-year career in Berlin as keyboardist to Frederick the Great. Reports tell of Bach improvising at his beloved clavichord for hours on end.

Although underappreciated (and grossly underpaid) while working for Frederick, Bach wrote music of startling originality in what is referred to as the empfindsamer stil, or "sensitive style." You can hear it just 20 seconds into the album's opening Sonata in F sharp minor. The quick, fanciful runs that begin the movement are suddenly (and continually) interrupted by delicate lyrical passages, as if Bach had a momentary change of thought. You can also think of it as dialog, even arguments, between two characters. Although, like his father, he never wrote an opera, Bach certainly witnessed many during his Berlin years. The vivid and fluctuating emotions of those stage dramas undoubtedly leaked into his instrumental music.

What makes these keyboard pieces pop is their unpredictability. Throughout — especially in the opening movements of the sonatas — the impetuous mood swings, curious key changes, whiplash stops and starts and deceptive cadences leave you wondering (gleefully) if this isn't the musical equivalent to ADHD.

After a series of four sonatas — advancing chronologically throughout 1744 to 1758 — Driver ends the album with a brilliant contrast of dark and light from Bach's very last years. The 12-minute Fantasie in F sharp minor, from 1787, is a brooding study in gray and black. Improvisatory passages alternate with wistful lyricism forecasting Chopin. The carefree Rondo in D minor, capping off the album, couldn't be more opposite. The jaunty theme is teased, pushed around, sliced up and brought back in the wrong key. Here, with all its quirky and calculated instability, Bach foreshadows Beethoven. And in 1785, when this Rondo was written, the 15-year-old composer from Bonn was eight years away from composing his first piano sonata.

This is Driver's second volume of C.P.E. Bach keyboard works. Once again, through detailed attention to the music's shifting textures and employing equal parts of elegance and wit, the pianist provides a fascinating glimpse into the mind one of the most forward-thinking composers of the 18th century.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.