Emmanuel Pahud on why the flute concertos of C.P.E. Bach are so gutsy 1
At the court of Frederick the Great, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was free to question the world. A conversation with Emmanuel Pahud on courtly customs, innovations and revolutions.
“There’s a new beginning in the music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.” When Emmanuel Pahud speaks about C.P.E. Bach, he likes best to talk about what he hears: “Physical music that doesn’t unconditionally follow the dictates of beauty, that experiments, that stirs up, that grates, that’s virtuosic — that storms and stresses at every moment and everywhere. In Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s music we hear that, in reality, the scene at Sanssouci was part of a new beginning, a world in upheaval.
"Frederick revolutionised Prussia, its politics, its military and its arts — but in the end he himself belonged to a species that was already becoming extinct. It is this premonition that can be heard in the music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: everything is in flux; everything is extreme. In fast movements, he races as if striving to take flight into new worlds, while his slow movements are marked by incredible drama and depth.”
Time and again in his recent albums, Pahud has played the part of curious music historian, studying the music at the Sanssouci court (The Flute King) and then the sounds of the French Revolution. He also regards music as a contemporary view of the spirit of an earlier age.
His new album of three flute concertos by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is the logical consequence of his explorations. Emanuel, second surviving son of Johann Sebastian Bach (Georg Philipp Telemann was one of his godfathers), was appointed chamber harpsichordist at the court of Frederick the Great in 1741.
“It’s interesting that Bach didn’t always toe the musical line at court,” says Pahud, “and I’m sure that wasn’t his concern: Bach went farther than Quantz, was more radical, and showed less consideration for his ruler’s tastes. Even the simplified royal version of his flute concertos overtaxed Frederick the Great.”
In his music, Bach combines the world of the court with that of the people — and he does this by fleeing from both realities and inventing a new and different world. He serves neither the powdered wigs nor the struggling multitudes, but instead he creates new, musical visions.” That is also why the composer is hard to pigeonhole for flautists. “Sure, he lived in the Rococo”, says Pahud, “but in his music we already hear the beginning of Romanticism, of Storm and Stress (Sturm und Drang), the urge to break away that represents the basis for Beethoven’s later unshackling.” The anticipation of historical periods also plays a role here for Pahud: “It was probably clear to Carl Philipp Emanuel that the Prussia of his masters was coming to an end, that the yearning for a new, republican Germany was already on the horizon.”
In this recording Pahud is once again working with trusted partners, conductor Trevor Pinnock and the Potsdam Kammerakademie. “Pinnock has always been a leading figure”, says Pahud, “not least for his legendary Bach recordings with flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal. He knows this period inside and out. He’s worked so long and hard on Johann Sebastian Bach, and in our collaboration on the court of Frederick we’ve learned from each other in dealing with both the sensual and intellectual aspects of the music.
"Meanwhile we’ve developed a kind of joint musical mind: a family which has enabled me to discover so many new things, and an environment in which interpretation becomes something totally natural.” Pahud is especially enthusiastic about “the physicality of Pinnock’s sound, that he’s not above getting his hands dirty and letting the music become really palpable.” This is a basic requirement for performing C.P.E. Bach in particular. “It’s great making music with people who were pioneers in this field, but who never get stuck in their research and are trying to set new standards with every new recording.” The three concertos in this recording are, in Pahud’s opinion, milestones of flute music:
“When you hear the A minor Concerto, whose beginning is furious to an extent you might find in other works’ finales, if at all, and when you see how virtuosically C.P.E. Bach treats the orchestra and the soloist, you know at once that you’re dealing with a great master who’s aiming to shake the world’s foundations with his music.”
No less revolutionary is the well-known G major Concerto. For Pahud, “even its length, over 24 minutes, is indicative. In those days a flute concerto would last maybe a quarter of an hour. Here Bach is challenging both musicians and listeners to conquer new dimensions.”
The D minor Concerto, too, is risking new musical extremes with its three movements: “In the first movement, the showpiece, we’re dealing with brilliant counterpoint”, Pahud explains. “In the second with an almost transfigured mood, and in the third with a wild, explosive finale. All three works manifest a musical universe that was born at Frederick the Great’s court while also breaking down its strict order — music inspired by change.
Emmanuel Pahud - C.P.E. Bach Flute Concertos is out now.