Is there anything a composer wouldn’t give for a bit of Johann Sebastian Bach’s musical DNA? Bach’s own children were the winners of that lottery, of course, and perhaps none more so than second son Carl Philipp Emanuel, a superstar in his lifetime, who influenced composers from Haydn to Beethoven. But with his 300th anniversary this year, C.P.E. Bach’s wildly inventive music is back in the spotlight, and on Sunday the Washington Bach Consort put on a program at the National Presbyterian Church that revealed how innovative this composer was.
The younger Bach’s music straddles the baroque and classical eras, and the afternoon opened with “Heilig” for chorus and orchestra, a work deeply connected to tradition. But the next work, the Sinfonia in D Major, highlighted his forward-looking, “expressive” style. Full of colorful harmonies and sudden shifts of rhythm and mood, the sinfonia is still a surprising, even edgy work.
Consort director J. Reilly Lewis seemed to tone down much of Bach’s extroverted drama — the intense, punching rhythms that open the piece came off like gentle caresses, and the rest of the piece seemed as if it were meant to soothe rather than delight. (That may have been partly due to the soft-voiced period instruments that the Consort uses, whose sound can be swallowed in enormous spaces.) But the next work — the cantata “Anbetung dem Erbarmer” — came off stronger, with detailed arias by the four soloists, particularly soprano Emily Noël and bass Steven Combs.
If the first half of the program was a bit tame, the closing work, “Magnificat in D Major” from 1749, made up for it with a vengeance. Lewis turned in a crisp performance with obvious delight in this work that deserves to be much more widely heard.
Brookes is a freelance writer.