Bach from the Brink

It isn’t every day that one attends the UK première of a Bach Passion, least of all one thought to have been lost forever. Admittedly, this work is not by Johann Sebastian Bach, but Carl Philipp Emanuel, the most important of the four Bach sons (he had 20 children by two wives, of whom ten survived into adulthood) who were professional musicians. In the 300 years since C.P.E. Bach was born in 1714, his reputation has fluctuated wildly. In his lifetime it rose steadily until his death in 1788, by which time he had outshone his father. Haydn learned from him, Mozart performed him and Beethoven revered him. Then, with Mendelssohn’s revival of Johann Sebastian’s St Matthew Passion in 1829, Emanuel Bach suffered almost total eclipse until the 1960s.

We owe the resurrection of his St John Passion, which until last month had not been heard since the first performance in 1784, to the young Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits. The various parts for this Passion, along with many other works by C.P.E. Bach, had been stored in Silesia by the Nazis, looted by the Red Army in 1945 and then vanished without trace. Recently, the MSS turned up in the Ukrainian national archive in Kiev, where Karabits was able to examine them and to prepare a performing version. They are now back in Berlin — an example of post-Soviet restitution unlikely to have happened in Vladimir Putin’s jurisdiction.

Thanks to Karabits’s scholarly and musical enthusiasm, Emanuel Bach’s 1784 St John Passion was performed under his baton by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Singers at Cadogan Hall in Chelsea — appropriately enough, a converted church. To my ears, this work is not only much shorter but lacks the tragic intensity of Johann Sebastian’s two surviving Passions. Yet its brisk pace still allows for some ravishing bass arias and sublime choruses that are all Emanuel’s own. His style, rococo rather than baroque, is nevertheless full of tender, deeply emotional effects achieved by the pioneering use of harmonic colour. This elevation of Empfindsamkeit (sensibility) may reflect the influence of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), the literary movement that flourished in the decade before this work was composed.

Once all 21 of C.P.E. Bach’s Passions are edited, published and performed, it will be possible to reassess his stature as a composer. No less a contemporary than Mozart declared: “He is the father, we are the children.” Three centuries after his birth, it is high time that Carl Philipp Emanuel stepped out of the shadow of his own father, Johann Sebastian.

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