Pity the offspring of Johann Sebastian Bach: Lavishly gifted as musicians, they’ve never been able to escape the vast shadow of their father. That’s certainly the case of second son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who broke from the formal musical herd of the time to develop a distinctive and highly influential “Empfindsamer” (or “sentimental”) style, full of sudden shifts in rhythm and harmony, overheated emotionalism and a kind of quirky, almost operatic drama. It’s fascinating stuff but not widely heard anymore, so it was a treat to hear soprano Julianne Baird, with Preethi de Silva on harpsichord and pianoforte, offer up a program on Friday night at the Library of Congress that made a strong case for a revival of this intriguing composer.
The Sri Lanka-born de Silva opened the evening with Bach’s “Fantasia in A Major, H. 278.” It’s a quintessentially “Empfindsamer” work with a free, almost improvisatory feel, full of unexpected contrasts and mercurial changes of tone. Yet de Silva, though she handled its technical challenges admirably — she’s a superb technician at the keyboard — gave it a rather distant, almost clinical treatment, with little fire or passion to bring it alive. The “Sonata in G minor, H. 47” that followed received a similar treatment: technically precise but played as if it were on Prozac.