Younger Bach’s music played cool and warm

March 11, 2012

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.

Things warmed up considerably, though, when Baird took the stage for three arias by Handel. Baird is as warm as de Silva is cool; her voice has a seductive softness around the edges that makes it irresistible, and she has an utterly natural sense of dramatic phrasing. As an accompanist, de Silva pushed matters along at an often-ferocious clip, but Baird handled it all — particularly the coloratura passages in “Scherza in mar la navicella” (from Handel’s opera “Lotario”) — with real beauty and insight.

The evening continued in that vein, as vocal and keyboard music by Bach alternated with works by composers influenced by him, and even de Silva seemed to warm up by the closing work, Haydn’s cantata “Arianna a Naxos.” The two turned in an absolutely compelling account that made the evening a stirring mini-drama full of subtle and deftly observed emotions.

Brookes is a freelance writer.

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