Musical Offering – C.P.E. Bach: The Piano Quartets. Review by Tom Hancox
October 13, 2014 (No Comments) by Peter Westbrook

C.P.E. Bach: The Piano Quartets

Musical Offering: 
Sarah Paysnick · flute; Sarah Darling · violin & viola; Matthew Hall · fortepiano

CPE-BachHow many players does it take to perform a trio sonata? Four, of course. And the flipside of this eighteenth-century coin? Just three musicians are needed to play a piano quartet, according to the Boston-based chamber music ensemble Musical Offering, at least.

Certainly the group’s fortepianist, Matthew Hall, eloquently expresses their reasons for omitting a dedicated bass instrument in the three piano quartets by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (the two hands of the keyboard part being considered as independent voices of the quartet by Bach). Essentially, the lightness of the flute and fortepiano’s tone ‘obviates’ (Hall’s word) the need for a cello, especially as it would unbalance the quartet’s ‘proto-symphonic’ texture (Hall). There is some mileage in this thesis, though it is somewhat undermined by the rather distant recorded sound of Sarah Paysnick’s flute playing, which leaves her very much in the shadow of the more forward fortepiano.

Yet one cannot help but wonder if there is something missing musically as a consequence of this decision. This music is still largely contrapuntal and the omission of a cello, for example, downplays the polyphonic craft of the writing, as many interesting bass lines lack power and continuity of sound – an inevitable fault of the fortepiano’s softly-spoken timbre and its rapid decay. It also limits the possibilities for variety in terms of texture and colour: many moments could simply be more sonorous, in turn heightening the contrast with the gentler solo passages. The inclusion of a cello would not mandate its playing of all the notes, as Hall’s observation that keyboard and bass players often read from one part would suggest. Instead, they would be free to decide between themselves who would play when – sometimes together, otherwise alternating – and it is that variety in sound that is lacking.

Musical Offering: Julia Cavallero, Sarah Paysnick, Sarah Darling, Shirley Hunt, Matthew Hall

Musical Offering: Julia Cavallero, Sarah Paysnick, Sarah Darling, Shirley Hunt, Matthew Hall

Three or four players aside, these are appealing and safe accounts of the quartets – indeed a little too staid at times. One wishes that some of the tempi were a little more dangerous – particularly in the concluding allegro assai of the quartet in A minor, Wq. 73 – and that there were more moments of fire and excitement, set against the ensemble’s well-captured grace.

The stand-out performance, however, is Paysnick and Hall’s account of the ‘Hamburger’ sonata, which finds its easy-going galant elegance with charm and real character. Hall’s realisation of the continuo part in the opening movement avoids the all too often plodding nature of the accompaniment that can weigh down the upwardly fluid melodic writing, instead inventing unfolding lines and rhythmic play. Paysnick finds great freedom in both movements, taking time to negotiate the toughest corners and employing many more rhetorical tricks besides to find the good-humoured but nonetheless virtuosic core to the sonata.

Hall’s liner notes are worthy of mention, too. Not only are they well-researched and clearly expressed, they go some way to illuminating the conceptual framework for Musical Offering’s playing, which is discernibly intelligent. It could just be more spontaneous.

For more information, some selections from the CD and directions on how to purchase see

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Review by Tom Hancox

Tom Hancox (Photo Magnus Rew)

Tom Hancox (Photo Magnus Rew)

Thomas Hancox read Music at St Peter’s College, Oxford, from where he graduated with a first, before further study in Paris with Patrick Gallois, and then at the Royal Academy of Music, London, with Paul Edmund-Davies and Samuel Coles. Today he is a regular guest principal flute with leading orchestras in the UK and abroad, including the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, Academy of St Martin in the Fields, English Chamber Orchestra, London Mozart Players, Irish Chamber Orchestra, and the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra. 
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See also: Review by Tom Moore

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