Notes and Editorial Reviews
W. F. BACH
Overture in E?,
BR-WFB A 59.
Concerto in G?,
BR-WFB A 13b.
Harpsichord Sonatas: in D,
BR-WFB A 4;
BR-WFB A 10.
Minuet in F,
BR-WFB A 50b.
Fantasias: in d,
BR-WFB A 105;
BR-WFB A 24
CARUS 83.346 (68:50)
The mysteries surrounding Wilhelm Friedemann Bach seem much more impenetrable than those surrounding his brothers, varied though their fates were. Contemporaries hated him, pictured him as high-handed, arrogant, and volatile, yet his greatest flaw seems to simply have been an unwillingness to compromise—as his brother Carl Philipp did in Prussia—to simpler, less complex tastes in music. W. F. was famed, it seems, for telling people that he would write music the way he wanted to until the common people “can tell the difference between true and false.” His real tragedy seems to have been in impressing people like the Duke of Brunswick, who was so impressed with his music and virtuosity that he promised him a lifetime annuity of 200 gulden, then reneged on his promise. The upshot was that he ended up having to travel a great deal, as far afield as St. Petersburg and London, before finally settling in Berlin in 1774, while his wife gradually sold all her inherited property until there was nothing left and he died in abject poverty. Sadly, it’s not much different a fate from Mozart, who died at a much younger age. Composers didn’t have corporate or any other sponsors in those days.
This CD of keyboard pieces combines a few early works, such as the Sonatas in D and F, with late ones. Most of these pieces receive their first recordings here (all but the Sonata in D and Fantasia in E Minor), and Léon Berben is an outstanding harpsichord virtuoso. All of these performances are played in the German rather than the Austrian style, which means a much closer adherence to strict tempo, yet Berben does slip a few rubato touches into the music. What I find interesting—and Berben does, too—is that it is the earlier works that sound pensive and introspective, while the later ones are bursting at the seams with energy and exuberance, almost as if Bach were ignoring or turning his back on the terrible financial straits he found himself in.
Though these works are all in a style that harks back to that of his father, there are numerous contemporary touches and a voice of his own. The surface glitter of much of the music belies the inventiveness of many passages; although those moments are fewer and further between than in the keyboard music of his brother C. P. E., and not nearly as modern or Mozartian as that of brother J. C., but it’s fascinating music nevertheless. I disagree with the opinion of annotator Peter Wollny, who describes W. F.’s music as “withdrawn, even unapproachable.”
, it’s the surface glitter that’s more a barrier to complete appreciation. It almost sounds as if he were playing Pagliacci, laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.
Perhaps a subtler interpreter (like Brautigam or Kipnis) would have brought more to these works than Berben does, yet a sensitive listener can hear through the straightforward readings to moments of deeper emotions. Considering the rarity of most of these works, you should really acquire this if a study of Bach’s sons is on your horizon.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
We all know the romantic image of the composer: a tormented soul, trying to express himself, misunderstood by his contemporaries, and bound to live and die in poverty. There may be some truth in that, as far as the romantic era is concerned, when composers indeed often expressed themselves and their personal feelings in their compositions. In earlier times music expressed emotion as well, but this was of a more impersonal nature: it was about emotions which every human being could feel now and then. If there is any composer from pre-romantic times who answers the romantic image of a composer it is Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Johann Sebastian's eldest son.
By all accounts he was a difficult character, which was partly due to having been spoilt by his over-protective father. It was only after Johann Sebastian had died that he gained independence. But it seems that he found it hard to position himself in a world in which many things changed. One of the things which was open to change was musical taste. Friedemann's oeuvre reflects the various tastes of his time, but it seems that he didn't feel at home with any of them.
In his cantatas he largely followed in his father's footsteps. In his orchestral works he moves the furthest from the style of the baroque era. But it is his keyboard music which shows the whole array of stylistic features of his time. It is the tragedy of his life that he made use of forms which had become old-fashioned and were no longer appreciated. When he turned to more fashionable forms, his writing was often either too virtuosic to appeal to musical amateurs or too individualistic to be understood by audiences.
There is certainly no lack of interest in Friedemann's keyboard works among modern performers. Over the years I have heard - and partly reviewed - various recordings, but they mostly concentrate on a relatively small number of pieces. The 12
Polonaises - admittedly, these are masterpieces - are among his most-frequently performed works, plus some sonatas, fantasias and fugues. But there is much more which deserves attention. On this disc, the first volume of what may be a complete recording, the Dutch keyboard player Léon Berben presents seven works, of which no fewer than five are recorded here for the first time.
The programme starts with two pieces which take forms which were out of fashion in Friedemann's days. The overture was a common form in the baroque era. It was the opening movement of orchestral suites and also found its way into keyboard music. Johann Sebastian, for instance, composed an 'overture in French style' for harpsichord; other keyboard works opened with an overture, taking the place of a prelude. With its three sections - slow-fast-slow - Friedemann's
Overture in E flat - refers to the French overture of Lully. It is followed by the
Concerto in G. The concerto was common in Friedemann's days, but only as an orchestral piece. Concertos for keyboard were something of the past: his father was only one of several composers who transcribed instrumental concertos by his contemporaries for the keyboard. And Johann Sebastian's famous
Italian Concerto was modelled after these concertos.
Friedemann's independent mind and individualistic style come particularly to the fore in the two sonatas. They are full of melodic twists and turns and sudden pauses, and contain some astonishing harmonic progressions. In his liner-notes Peter Wollny interestingly makes a comparison with the music of his father's colleague and friend Jan Dismas Zelenka. He also states that in the
Sonata in D Friedemann attempts to link the style of his father with the fashion of his days. This didn't appeal to the music-loving world. "The bad sales of the first printing - which was produced at great expense - indicate that W.F. Bach's endeavor did not satisfy the musical tastes of that time. His contemporaries considered the work to be too discerning and complicated to justify the high production costs."
Fantasia in e minor which closes the programme is another remarkable piece which seems to look back to the
stylus phantasticus of the North-German organ school of the 17th century, with virtuosic runs, polyphonic episodes and recitativic passages alternating. The
Fantasia in d minor takes the form of an allemande. Wollny suggests it could have been a movement from a larger suite.
Notable is also the
Menuet in F. It is in fact a pair of menuets, the second in f minor. The repetition of the first menuet is then followed by three variations, which can be interpreted as a reference to the French habit of writing dances with 'doubles' in keyboard suites.
This recital is given a perfect interpretation by Léon Berben. He is a specialist in keyboard music - in particular from Germany - from the 16th to the 18th century. His technical skills guarantee that the virtuosic character of the fast movements comes off perfectly, but there is no lack of expression in the slow movements either. An essential feature of his interpretation is that the many surprises Friedemann has installed for us come into their own here.
In short, this disc is an absorbing musical picture of a brilliant mind.
-- Johan van Veen, MusicWeb International
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