Carl Philip Emanuel Bach

Symphonies from Berlin to Hamburg

Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

Mayumi Hirasaki and Georg Kallweit, concertmasters

Harmonia Mundi


Carl Philip Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) was the middle of Johann Sebastian Bach’s three surviving sons. His music occupies the period between the baroque and classical, often called the galant or rococo style. It truly is a transitional era, with the development of the orchestra, symphony, and a move toward more homophonic textures. Several recordings of his works have recently been issued, and it is nice to see this talented composer having a moment. 


Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin is a conductor-less ensemble led, as was the custom then as well, by its concertmasters Mayumi Hirasaki and Georg Kallweit. Their latest recording for Harmonia Mundi is a program of seven of C.P.E. Bach’s symphonies, Symphonies from Berlin to Hamburg, written for strings and continuo. Three date to early in his career (from 1738-1768), when he was in Berlin writing for the court, and the rest from the period of 1768 onwards, when he was Kapellmeister in Hamburg. 


All of them are cast in three movements – fast-slow-fast – and, as one can gather from the number of them on a single disc, are significantly shorter than those of the classical era. Their first movements are kinds of proto-sonatas, in which thematic development is truncated and themes are presented quickly and succinctly. 


That doesn’t mean that C.P.E.’s orchestral works are lacking in invention or surprises. There are also a number of harmonic shifts where a quick transition – in the C major H.649 symphony with just a single bass note – turns the music sideways. One trick that I particularly admire is the foreshadowing in the second movement of material that is reimagined for the last one. 


Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin recorded the program over a significant time period, with younger players, such as concertmaster Mayumi Hirasaki, joining part way through the process. This has led to a well-considered and exquisitely well-prepared recording. Symphonies from Berlin to Hamburg is not only an excellent introduction to the symphonic approach of the galant style, it is a compelling document suggesting that C.P.E. is a worthy successor to his famous father and precursor to the classicism of Haydn and Mozart. Recommended.


Christian Carey