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 genetic lottery, of course, and perhaps none more so than second son Carl Philipp Emanuel, who rose to superstar status in his lifetime, influenced composers from Haydn to Beethoven — and then vanished almost completely from view. But with his 300th anniversary this year, C.P.E Bach’s wildly inventive music is coming back into the spotlight, and on Sunday the Washington Bach Consort put on a program at the National Presbyterian Church that revealed just how innovative this composer really was.
The younger Bach's music straddles the Baroque and Classical eras, and the afternoon opened with “Heilig” (Wq 218) for chorus and orchestra, a work so deeply connected to tradition that it even quotes from his father’s music. But it was the next work, the “Sinfonia in D Major” (Wq 183/1), that highlighted the forward-looking “expressive” style that he's best remembered for. Full of rich contrasts, colorful harmonies and sudden shifts of rhythm and mood, the sinfonia is still a surprising, even edgy work.
To these ears, though, 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 out to sooth 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” (Wq 243) — came off more strongly, helped by fine, detailed arias by the four soloists, particularly soprano Emily Noël and bass Steven Combs.
If the first half of the program was a bit on the tame side, the closing work — the spectacular Magnificat in D Major (Wq 215) from 1749 — made up for it with a vengeance. Lewis turned in a crisp, gutsy performance with an almost physical sense of purpose and obvious delight in showcasing Bach’s anything-goes musical personality. Matthew Loyal Smith’s refined tenor voice, and the rich countertenor of Roger O. Isaacs, added depth to this full-blooded reading of a work that deserves to be much more widely heard.