CPE Bach’s Resurrection proves a worthy tribute to the memory of one of classical music’s early greats.
Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach probably had one of the toughest gigs in classical music. His dad, Johann Sebastian, is easily the most revered composer of his time. Out of fashion for a century, since the rediscovery of the music and scholarly work of JSB in the 19th century, CPE Bach has since been lauded as one of the key figures in the creation of modern music. It might have been easy for his sons to fall into his shadow – it might have been easy to forget that the “Father of Harmony” (Beethoven’s description of CPE) had a few dozen human children as well.
But Carl Phillip has not been forgotten. This year, on the 300th anniversary of his birth, dozens of cities throughout the world have organised events in celebration of his memory and his music. In Germany in particular, this has become quite a big deal. His home town, Weimar, is holding an entire Bachfest in his name. There is even a website dedicated to coordinating all the dozens of events around the world.
Though we seem to be a little less gung ho about the whole thing, a few Australian musical organisations are honouring the occasion in their own way. The latest offering, involving Brisbane’s venerable Chamber Choir (led by the equally august Graham Morton), was an old-fashioned Sunday afternoon recital – a real treat for a sentimental heart like me. The choir were supported by an enthusiastic performance by the Pulse Chamber Orchestra of the UQ School of Music, led by period expert Michael O’Loghlin.
Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt (The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus) is one of Bach’s last big works. Initially composed in 1774, Bach spent much of the next four years rewriting the work. How did CPE live up to the accomplishments of his father? Resurrection and Ascension gives a couple of clues. It’s a work that is almost presumptuous in its scope, tackling the most dramatic and emotional of subjects in classical music, taking up the story where JS Bach’s Passions ended. Unlike the elder Bach, CPE does not set much of a program, and has no characters. What program there is simply involves people describing their experience of the resurrection, whether grim and mighty or ultimately victorious. Like the earlier work, CPE does not take his lyrics directly from the Bible (the text is German, not Latin, written by Karl Wilhelm Ramler).
Despite the massive subject, this is an intimate work. Bach’s writing for the orchestra is very modest, despite its somewhat large size. The choir is small, only 20-odd voices. Not for Bach the easy short-cuts to emotional seriousness as used by certain Romantic composers I could name (like thick orchestration or over the top dynamics). This is classical music at its best.
The Brisbane performance was a real pleasure. Of the three soloists – Soprano Shelli Hulcombe, tenor Gregory Massingham and bass Shaun Brown – the acoustic favoured Hulcombe. If I regretted anything about the concert, it was that Bach wrote too little for the soprano. Hulcombe’s pure tone really suited the wet acoustic of St John’s Cathedral. Her first note in particular was just divine – and a good thing too; the audience got to hear each note a number of times as it echoed around the massive building. Bach, I think, would have been proud to hear her performance.
Tenor Gregory Massingham also deserves an honourable mention for his performance, handling a diabolically difficult part with unusual grace and skill. Shaun Brown’s performance was also excellent. Brisbane Chamber Choir, as always, were professional and sensitive and carried their part with great authority.