Notes and Editorial Reviews
Good performances of music which offers difficulties both technically and interpretatively, given on a beautiful instrument and well-recorded.
Being the son of a great father, perhaps privileged by the opportunity to learn vital lessons at close quarters, but also burdened with expectations, both those of other people and one’s own, can never be easy. The literary critic Harold Bloom evolved a whole theory, elaborated in his book The Anxiety of Influence (1973), of how poets struggle against the work of their precursor (or father) poets and how only the ‘strong’ survive the experience and themselves become significant precursors for yet later poets. How much more difficult the situation when that precursor really is
one’s father, as was the case with Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. When that father has had a high opinion of your precious talents; when that father has taken particular trouble over your education, preparing your for what was confidently expected to be a distinguished career, then the pressure must become enormous and, in some respects at least, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, eldest son of J.S., succumbed to it.
For all his real gifts as an organist and a composer, W.F. Bach led an unsettled and unhappy life. He held posts as organist at the Dresden Sophienkirche and then as organist at the Liebfrauenkirche in Halle; but he seems constantly to have been at odds with his employers, often taking extended breaks without permission. He seems to have found himself constantly in positions which must have made him feel an outsider. In the Catholic city of Dresden he held a post at a Protestant church at a salary far lower than those paid to musicians at the Catholic Dresden court; by the time he had moved to Halle, Bach had developed a fascination for theological free-thinking – and Halle was governed by hard-line Pietists. Eventually, in 1764, he walked out of his job and never held another post with any real prospects or permanence. He taught, wrote music and gave organ recitals, especially after he moved to Berlin, around 1774. But he died in considerable poverty, leaving his wife and daughter destitute: they had to be supported by a charity performance of Handel’s Messiah.
Musically, too, he found it difficult to fit in. Having worked closely with his father, sharing his teaching, conducting rehearsals, copying music. As such he was utterly steeped in the principles of J.S. Bach’s music; he was an acknowledged master of counterpoint. But the world of European music was changing and, in any case, he doubtless wanted to do more than merely imitate his father’s music. (Though there do seem to have been a few incidents when he claimed credit for works actually written by his father). His reaction to the huge exemplar of his father’s achievement was strikingly inconsistent: at times he struck off in new directions, doing things his father would never have done and would almost certainly have disapproved of; at other times he wrote music which might indeed have been mistaken for work by his father.
At his best, Wilhelm Friedemann’s work reflects this sense of struggle and uncertainty. There are often odd and unexpected changes of direction and idiom even within individual works; that he had an exploratory musical mind cannot be doubted and it is this side of his musical character that is most in evidence in the set of twelve polonaises which occupies much of this CD. As Robert Hill suggests in his excellent booklet notes, “as a form the polonaise was ideally suited to his purposes: it was galant and fashionable, yet lacked most formal constraints other than its time signature (3/4), binary structure and modest dimensions … The polonaise could be in major or in minor mode, lively or introspective in mood”. These polonaises certainly are extraordinarily diverse in mood, full of unexpected twists and turns, ofodd and complex harmonies and of poetic and expressive gestures. It is not surprising that these pieces should have been amongst the works by W.F. Bach that found admirers in the nineteenth century; listening to them it is hard not to hear anticipations of romantic keyboard writing.
The remarkable Sonata in D major – which W.F. published as his Opus 1 – was planned as the first of a set of six, never completed. Technically very demanding (especially in the final movement), the sonata’s two outer movements (marked Un poco Allegro and Vivace) make some use of the kind of phrasing one thinks of as galant, but also of unexpected leaps and unresolved harmonies. In the central adagio we are offered an impressively accomplished – and attractive – fugue; Hill describes it perfectly as “a tour-de-force of contrapuntal technique in the service of ‘sensibilité’”. It is hard to think of another keyboard sonata quite like this from the 1740s. Though it would be interesting to hear the piece played on a contemporary harpsichord, it also works very well on the modern reproduction of a fortepiano of around 1720 which Robert Hill plays here.
The Fantasia in A minor – which is surely a late work though no date seems to be known for it – is full of unexpected rhythms and sudden melodic flurries, of discontinuities and abrupt transitions, and it concludes with a remarkable and powerful prestissimo section which seems to speak of frustration and anger, emotions which may perhaps have been Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s own at this time in his life.
This excellent sampling of W.F.’s writing for solo keyboard is played with great understanding and very fair technical assurance by Robert Hill – whose recordings of Haydn have properly attracted praise. Here he plays a beautiful modern instrument, a copy made in 1999 by Keith Hill in the USA of a Florentine fortepiano in the style of Bartolomeo Cristoferi. Even and firm, and with an attractive tonal glow – perhaps because of the use of brass strings – this is a lovely instrument and proves perfectly suited to the expressive and poetic qualities of W.F. Bach’s writing.
Naxos entitle this disc ‘Keyboard Works 1’. I hope I am right in taking that to imply that there will be more to come.
Glyn Pursglove, MusicWeb International
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