Celebration of the 300th anniversary of Carl Philipp Emanuel (C.P.E.) Bach's birth continued in Duke University's Baldwin Auditorium with a program of a flute sonata and three quartets for flute, viola, 'cello, and keyboard (in this case, a fortepiano).
While the performances would have sounded very right to the composer, we should note two things about this concert which would not have been familiar in the late 18th century: the size of the performing space and the performers' attire. Baldwin Auditorium is a much larger hall than those in which most of C.P.E.'s chamber music was originally heard. Performers in those days (and often in our own time) dressed more formally than this quartet, which appeared in non-synchronous garb which was less formal than that of some of the members of the audience.
That being said, the performances were uniformly excellent. Duke faculty member Rebecca Troxler, who designed the program, and fortepianist Andrew Willis led off with the Sonata in E-flat major for flute and keyboard, Wot. 84. Troxler's Classical flute (i.e., a 6-key wooden instrument) and Willis' fortepiano were in perfect tandem, their intimate Baroque sonorities heard clearly in the hall's receptive acoustic. The quirky (Troxler's description) elements of C.P.E.'s music were already in evidence: the deceptive cadences of the opening Allegretto (an extended minuet), the chromatic melodic lines of the Adagio di molto, and the elegance and humor of the closing Allegro assai.
Next came the first of C.P.E.'s late quartets: the A-minor, Wot. 93; Troxler and Willis were joined by violist John Pruett and 'cellist Barbara Blaker Krumdieck. Here was a mannered opening movement, but one which was harmonically inventive; a wandering Largo e sostenuto, and a closing Allegro assai featuring scintillating roulades of sound from rapid figural passages in each instrument. Thoroughly at home with this music, the performers were ensemble-perfect in the give-and-take of Bach's rapidly-changing musical ideas.
After a brief intermission, the four artists returned to play the remaining two of the composer's late quartets: the D major, Wot. 94, and the G major, Wot. 95. This music would never be mistaken for C.P.E.'s father's music. More than three decades had passed since Johann Sebastian's death; his son had broken new harmonic, rhythmic, and formal grounds, transitioning to what we now know as the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart, both of whom acknowledged a debt to C.P.E. as having helped to shape the "new music."
The D major quartet contains unusual rhythms (cross-accents) which the performers navigated seamlessly. Its most unusual feature is its transition-without-pause from its opening Allegretto to its slow movement, also unusual in its title, which is not in Italian, but in German: Sehr langsam und ausgehalten (very slow and sustained). If that sounds more Romantic than Baroque or Classical, it is yet another sign of the wonderful "quirkiness" of C.P.E.'s writing. His music is continually going somewhere – where, one is never sure at the time, but the journey is always interesting.
Nowhere was this more clear than in the final work, the G Major quartet, where Bach takes uncharted musical paths. Ideas come and are replaced by others, then return, altered, before being replaced by yet others. There are dialogues between pairs of instruments; there is much imitation; but there is little of the less-disjunct form of the later string quartet which blossomed in the Classical era. In C.P.E.'s quartets, we hear mostly solo lines, interwoven and sometimes in tandem thirds or sixths between two instruments. The slow movement, in its expressive character, foreshadows the music of Franz Schubert.
Each artist brought distinction to the performance: Troxler's clarity of sound and nuances of tone from her granadilla-wood flute; Krumdieck's elegant bowing and elan; Pruett's light touch and clarity; and Willis' flawless keyboard technique at the service of his knowing musicianship. The concluding Presto, a veritable perpetuum mobile of cascading 16th notes traded back-and-forth between the artists, ended the concert on an exhilarating high point.