CPE Bach

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

WORKS: Hamburg Symphonies, Wq 182
PERFORMER: Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra/Sakari Oramo


Although the Austrian diplomat and politician Baron van Swieten was described as haughty and self-opinionated, he showed imaginative taste in commissioning these six string symphonies from CPE Bach in 1773. He demanded only that Bach’s ‘creative imagination might have free rein, unfettered by any regard for technical difficulties’, the ideal challenge for the master of the new Empfindsamer style, emphasising sensitivity and musical drama.

The emotional range is immensely concentrated. Symphony No. 4 in A opens with wild lurching between unexpected keys, vividly contrasting textures and moods – delicate arpeggios on a single chord, dramatic unisons to reach the remote D minor three bars later, then a single bar of sublime ‘galant’ elegance before the opening passion returns. No. 2 in B flat’s first-movement leaping motif moves to a distant, sunny D major in its slow movement before navigating a tortuous route through ambiguous harmonies to a finale of finger-knitting figurations. (Web-search ‘IMSLP/Petrucci music library’ for revelatory, public domain scores, numbered H657-662.)

The Finnish Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra has developed over 40 years from a student orchestra to one of the most polished and expressive professional ensembles I’ve come across. Their ensemble is immaculate, their intonation superb – but above all their liveliness and panache is exactly what’s needed for these exhilarating pieces.


George Pratt