CDs / DVDs, 01. September 2011, 1.9.2011

As the recording date suggests, this double CD is a re-issue, originally published by Capriccio in 1988. It was re-released most recently in 2004 as part of their 12 CD 'CPE Bach Edition' of symphonies, concertos, keyboard music, flute sonatas and vocal music (C49367). Phoenix have in fact already re-issued most of the discs in that set already this summer in this, their own 'CPE Bach Edition'. They have essentially provided a design facelift: the booklets have attractive old school covers, clean, blockish layouts and even a colour photo printed on the discs themselves. Admittedly the perfunctory liner-notes - two-and-a-half columns of text in total - are nothing to get excited about, but generally speaking the CDs each create a good impression.

In quantitative terms CPE Bach was not a great symphonist, but for sheer quality, and therefore musicological importance, the ten 'Hamburg' works on these discs, accounting for about half of his known output, are hard to beat. Even during their first rehearsals, the "great variety and novelty of form and modulation" of the six Symphonies for Strings was noted, and Emanuel described the Orchestral Symphonies to his publisher as "the greatest thing of that kind that I have done. My modesty prevents me from saying any more on the subject."

Though Emanuel retained the fast-slow-fast three-movement model, he had moved away from the Italian style of his earlier 'Berlin' symphonies towards greater orchestral texture, from the obbligato winds and minimal continuo in the Wq 183 set, to the richness of the strings in Wq 183. His usual grace, variety, depth and excitement remain, but there is also much non-frivolous novelty in both sets of Symphonies: for example, the running of one movement into another without a caesura, particularly startling in the dramatic sudden turn in the music between the first and second movements of the String Symphony in C; the unexpected three second pause midway through the slow section of the String Symphony in G; the amazing tone colour of the slow movement of the Orchestral Symphony in D or the initial chord of the one in E flat; the sudden interruption of the calm opening to the String Symphony in B minor; and several more examples of empfindsamer Stil.

When these two discs first came out they won a Deutscher Schallplattenpreis (now the ECHO Prize), an industry award that was fully deserved: Bach's excellent music is given first-rate attention by Hartmut Haenchen and his fine group of musicians. Today Haenchen is still artistic director of the CPE Bach Chamber Orchestra, which has gone on from these relatively early days to build up a reputation for excellent period musicianship. Given their name and the quality performances in these recordings, it may appear to be stating the obvious that the Orchestra specialises in eighteenth century repertoire, but it did in fact start out as a new music ensemble!

Sound and general technical quality is high. Some background traffic noise is occasionally just audible, and there are one or two inconspicuous editing joins, such as at the very start of the third movement of the String Symphony in G, or between the second and third movements of the Orchestral Symphony in E flat, which were obviously recorded on different occasions. Incidentally, the CD does not confirm that this is a DDD recording - but the original Capriccio cover does.

Though this is a double disc set, there are still only 102 minutes on offer, which makes it a disappointingly short recording. Fortunately, it is available at the same price as single discs in the edition, making it something of a reasonable purchase after all - in fact, CPE Bach's Symphonies being what they are, this is actually a bargain.

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