Friday, January 25, 2008

Epic Miklós

I assume that as soon as most readers realize that I am writing yet again about Miklós Spányi's epic project to record all of Emanuel Bach's solo keyboard works they will quickly move on to their next favorite music blog or Internet activity. What is this obsession, they may ask? Yet, I know there are others like me, or this monumental effort would die. Recordings are expensive to produce and by the time you reach volume 17 there must be some kind of critical mass. In doing such a complete survey, there are sure to be some recordings that are more memorable than others. We are now into some of the especially interesting works, and so I couldn't wait for this latest release.

Volume 17— at last! It has been six months since I wrote about volume 16, which I still consider to be especially noteworthy because it records the first three Württemberg Sonatas; volume 17 finishes that collection, and I think that the final three sonatas on it are of particular interest.

The Württemberg Sonatas were published when Emanuel was a young man of 30, five years before Sebastian Bach's death. One wonders what Papa Bach thought of them, as these are far, far away from his own style. I consider them revolutionary in both scope and inspiration, and I cannot imagine how there could be only one complete recording of them when there is an endless supply of recordings of Haydn's much more mundane works. Why haven't modern pianists tapped into this wealth? (Glenn Gould claimed that he intended to to record all of Emanuel Bach's works, but apparently stopped after the first Württemberg Sonata; we should probably be grateful he ceased, as that recording is really Gould at his most stilted.)

Once again Spányi has recorded on his copy of the Horn clavichord built in 1999 by Joris Potvlieghe, an instrument that he clearly favors. Although this particular design has a certain metallic nasal quality to my ears—as opposed to the very sweet sound of Potvlieghe's own Saxonian design that can be heard on the first three volumes—it is remarkably expressive, with a very wide dynamic range. Spányi's command of it, indeed of all the clavichords he has recorded on, is absolutely authoritative. He is a remarkable technician (in addition to being a musician—an important distinction); I witnessed playing an essentially flawless recital on a tangent piano some years back. I mention this because his interpretations are not restricted by his technique, but rather by his concept.

Much of Emanuel Bach's work was aimed at the amateur market: shorter pieces with only moderate technical demands. Spányi can knock these off in his sleep; indeed, I have heard that he can improvise similar pieces convincingly. I think he is weakest with the lightest fare: I far prefer Marcia Hadjimarkos and Tom Beghin for the Petites Pièces—Spányi tends to "over-think" these charming trifles. His approach to the much meater Württemberg Sonatas is a different story: here is an artist with a deep understanding and a lot to say.

Volume 17 consists of the last three sonatas, and I think these are some of the most interesting pieces in the collection so far. Each sonata has its own character and idiosyncrasies, and it may be that the idiosyncrasies contribute to descriptions like "quirky" or "abrupt" that are often linked to his music. The opening sonata, in b-flat, has a genial and galant that is more akin to his smaller works, but a larger scale. The fifth sonata, in e-flat, has a grand opening theme that is interrupted by a quirky syncopation mid-way. The notes by Darrell Berg describe this as a kind of "French overture", but it is much more of a fantasy, a kind unique to Emanuel Bach. The second movement is in the astonishing key of e-flat minor and is a three-voice fugal fantasy with great passion. The sonata ends with a very upbeat allegro: full of wit and bounce.

The jewel is the final sonata, in b-minor. The opening moderato is a large movement, over twelve minutes long—almost as long as his "average" complete three-movement sonatas. There is an real feeling of improvisation, especially as Spányi presents it: one could just imagine Emanuel playing it on his fabled Silbermann clavichord for Charles Burney.

I have always favored the first two volumes, which feature the "Prussian Sonatas"— also larger and inventive works. I find volumes 16 and 17 to be similarly compelling, and the more I listen to them, the more I appreciate them. Perhaps not everyone is cut out to be a "fanatic" in collecting the complete series. I would seriously consider at least these four: volumes 1 & 2, 16 & 17. As for a confirmed fanatic, I can't wait for volume 18.