Notes and Editorial Reviews
W. F. BACH
12 Polonaises for Keyboard,
Fantasia in d,
Sonata in E?,
Siegbert Rampe (hpd,
MDG 3411592 (67:51)
Mention in the headnote of a tangent piano sent me scurrying to music dictionaries and sources on 18th-century instruments to discover what this failed experiment in evolution was all about. Here, in condensed form, is what I learned. The tangent piano had a short lifespan in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, bridging the gap between and coexisting for a time with the harpsichord and the fortepiano. Essentially, it was a harpsichord, but one in which a small slip of bare wood similar in shape to a harpsichord jack struck the string to produce the sound. The difference was in the “tangent” action—what we today refer to as an “escapement”—which allowed the striker mechanism to release the string immediately after the key was struck, thereby permitting the string to vibrate freely and the tone to decay naturally, as in a modern piano. Various models of the instrument also came supplied with a variety of stops and damper pedals.
Unfortunately for the tangent piano—aka
Tangentenflügel, cembalo angelico
clavecin harmonieux et celeste
—by the late 1700s its future was already behind it. Consigned to the boneyard of history, this musical oddity never had a fighting chance, for it stood in the persistent course of progress. It was an attempt to forestall the overtaking of the harpsichord by the ever encroaching fortepiano by endowing the harpsichord with properties that gave it a hoped-for advantage over its challenger. It would be somewhat analogous to outfitting a horse-drawn carriage with an automobile horn in an attempt to avert the development of the internal combustion engine. But true to current evolutionary theory, only those genetic mutations that give the next generation of a species a leg up on survival are passed on; the others die off.
Though recordings of some of Mozart’s earliest keyboard pieces and his earlier sonatas for keyboard and violin have been made using a tangent piano, few composers other than J. S. Bach’s sons are known to have written specifically for the instrument. For Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s E?-Major Sonata on this disc, Siegbert Rampe plays an anonymous North German model, built circa 1788. Pitch is at A=433 Hz, and tuning is according to the temperament set forth by Georg Marcus Stein in 1785. It’s not a disagreeable sound that emanates from Rampe’s tangent piano; it’s just kind of unusual for what I suspect most ears are accustomed to hearing. I guess you could say it sounds exactly like what it is, which is a hybrid harpsichord-fortepiano, but one that is skewed more toward the latter than the former. Perhaps it’s because Bach wrote this piece expressly for the instrument and would have understood its capabilities and unique sonic properties better than anyone, and because the music is so expressive, especially the gorgeous Largo movement, that I find myself quite taken with this tangent piano’s sparkling, bell-like tone.
W. F. Bach (1710–1784), J. S.’s eldest son, may quite possibly have been the most gifted. But as
’s informed readers will already know, he wasted much of his life in idle pursuits and died alone in abject poverty. His biography, I think, makes an excellent psychological case study for what happens to a firstborn son who is burdened with the unachievable demands and expectations of a stern, perfectionist father.
The more I hear of his music, the more intrigued I become. Much as I appreciate the works of his younger brothers Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, I am coming around to the belief that Wilhelm Friedemann was the Bach son with greatest musical potential and depth. And the 12 polonaises on this CD must surely be among his finest, most sophisticated, and most beautiful keyboard compositions. They were written in two phases: one through six completed in 1765, and seven through 12 in 1770. The key sequence—a polonaise in the major key, followed by one in its parallel minor, beginning with C Major and ending with G Minor—strongly suggests that another 12 were planned that would have completed a traversal through all 24 major and minor keys. I wouldn’t get too hung up, however, on the “polonaise” title because many, if not most, of the pieces do not conform to the traditional dance form either in meter or stylistic character. Each piece is its own individual miniature.
As far as current listings go, there’s not much in the way of competing recordings. Gustav Leonhardt recorded a sampling of them on harpsichord for Philips back in the late 1980s. The only other complete recording I find of all 12 polonaises is by Robert Hill on Naxos, but he plays them on a fortepiano, which educated suspicion tells me is what Bach probably had in mind.
Closer to the musical vocabulary and contrapuntal style of his father is W. F.’s D-Minor Fantasia, a work that recalls J. S.’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in the same key. Similar florid arpeggios and chromatic passages are followed by a brief fugal interlude, only to be interrupted by a return to the rapid flourishes.
The harpsichord played here by Siegbert Rampe is a real beauty. It’s a 2006 copy by Jürgen Ammer of Breitenbach, Germany, after an instrument by Johann Heinrich Harrass. It’s tuned to A=417 Hz, with Bach temperament by Herbert A. Kellner. A photo pictures a very large, two-manual, 16-foot monster, which is visually in keeping with its very resonant, vibrant sound. Whether Bach would have had access to such an extravagant instrument or, even if he had, whether he more likely intended these works for fortepiano, seems beside the point. Rampe, based on reviews in these pages of some of his prior releases, is not averse to a little experimentation and perhaps more than a little showmanship.
He is, however, a well-recorded artist who has at least 20 discs to his credit on the MDG label. And though this is
first exposure to him, on evidence of this latest release, I need no further convincing. This is a gorgeous CD, and one that I think should go far in raising general consciousness to the excellence of W. F. Bach’s music, which, in the end, is what really matters. Very strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Startlingly complex and expressive.
The smiling, genial face of W.F. Bach that looks out from the cover of this CD belies the complex nature of the man and his music.
The eldest and most favoured of J.S. Bach’s sons, W.F. is known to musical history as one of the great might-have-beens. An exceptionally gifted organist and violinist, the young Wilhelm Friedemann was taught by both his father and Johann Gottlieb Graun. Yet, having secured lucrative posts in Dresden and Halle, he never quite lived up to expectations - composing little and gaining a reputation more as a teacher, organ recitalist and all-round difficult customer.
The 12 polonaises date from 1765-1770 after he had quit his job as director of music in Halle. They are recorded here for the first time. Far from being a set of mannered dance miniatures, they are startlingly complex and expressive works with a strong Sturm und Drang flavour. Cast in the major and minor keys of C, D, E flat, E, F and G, each polonaise has its own individual character, ranging from the technical brilliance of No. 3 (track 3) to the darkly dramatic and almost filmic nature of the final G minor movement (track 12). Take time to listen to the eighth polonaise in E minor (track 8), with its rough, plucky rhythms and exotic, eastern European feel.
Bach’s short Fantasia in D minor also packs a weighty punch. In just over five minutes, it traverses a wide range of emotions within a complex fugal structure. Equally fascinating is the short Sonata in E flat major, which also receives its recording debut. Unlike the Polonaises and Fantasia, the Sonata appeals because of its simplicity. Its easy charm and wit - listen out for the sequence of interrupted cadences in the final Presto - perhaps better reflect the kindly nature of the man in the portrait on the front cover. The only disappointment is soloist Siegbert Rampe’s decision to play the sonata on a tangent piano - a hybrid clavichord/fortepiano. Briefly popular in the German-speaking lands in the late eighteenth century, the instrument just sounds odd to modern ears, which yearn for the sonata to be played on either one or the other.
-- John-Pierre Joyce, MusicWeb International
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