Notes and Editorial Reviews
J. C. BACH
Bart van Oort (fp)
BRILLIANT 94634 (56:01)
It could perhaps be said that without Johann Christian Bach, there may not have been a Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This may, of course, be stretching a point too far, but there can be no doubt that Bach gave the young boy of nine years immense encouragement and help by taking him under his wing during a visit to London. Johann Sebastian’s youngest son was, by all accounts, a talented composer and generous mentor, whose musical
style was clearly a model from which the young child learned a great deal. So much so that he even set three of Bach’s keyboard sonatas, part of the set recorded here, as concertos, and when Johann Christian passed away suddenly in 1782 Mozart lamented his loss to his father.
One should, however, not always equate Bach and the child Mozart in a single breath, for the former was already regarded as one of the main composers of the age when they first met. Unlike his brother Carl Philipp Emanuel or his father, he wrote operas and, along with his friend Karl Friedrich Abel, created a public concert series in London that was widely known for its innovations and progressive music. The six Op. 5 sonatas from 1766 were Bach’s first published keyboard works in London. As with other sets of the same type, they were no doubt meant to appeal to the knowledgeable amateur, especially those from whom Bach could expect future patronage. As the music master to the British royal family, he had the credentials to obtain a wide following in Britain, and he further made the works accessible by noting on the title page that they could be played either on harpsichord or fortepiano, the latter of which was becoming the instrument of choice for most well-to-do households. Finally, he chose to include a breadth of styles and techniques that would provide something for everyone, meaning that they were meant primarily for the salon instead of the concert hall.
It should be clear from the start that the set has no real unifying features. The degree of difficulty ranges from the simple and perhaps even naïve First Sonata in Bb Major, with is easy-listening first movement and rather stately minuet second, to the rather eclectic Fifth in E Major, with an opening theme that is positively perpetual motion, a second movement whose lilting lyricism depicts a gentility, and a finale dance that simply reeks of his brother’s keyboard technique. The odd ball is the final sonata in C Minor, where a slow French-style
leads directly into a truly impressive fugue which would have pleased his father for its intricacy. There is more than a little nod to Rameau, especially in the elfin quality of the final gavotte. We are in an earlier world here, and when one contrasts this with the full-voiced symphonic Sonata in D Major (the second of the set), it is apparent that the composer was bringing together something that would appeal to everyone, from the elder generation used to the galant style to the fiery, thick-textured world of the latest works. No wonder the young Mozart chose this work, and the two that followed, for his “revision” into keyboard concertos in K 107. If one is transported by the aria-like second movement of the D-Major, then one should likewise be prepared to be awed by the larger architecture of the Eb-Major work, with its extended development section in the first movement, and its highly-ornamented rondeaux second that recalls the best of Rameau.
The performance by keyboardist Bart van Oort is flexible and contains an intimacy in his phrasing that brings out Johann Christian’s lines, whether they be complex or simple. His performance of the fugue just mentioned is clear and precise, supporting the old-fashioned flavor of the movement, but as he is smooth and emotional in the preceding
, the contrasts are quite appropriate and draw the listener into Bach’s sound world. In short, even though these are hardly pieces to rank even close to the great sonatas of the period, his performance gives them a nice lightness and precision that pulls forth considerable detail from the music. For anyone interested in the role that such salon pieces played in the development of music of the period, this would be a wonderful disc to add to your collection.
FANFARE: Bertil van Boer
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