musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Carl Friedrich Christian FASCH (1736 - 1800): "Works for Keyboard"

Philippe Grisvard, fortepianoa

rec: Nov 19 - 21, 2019, Müllheim (D), Martinskirche
Audax - ADX 13725 (© 2020) (64'46")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/JP
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ariette avec quatorze variations; La Cecchina; La Hagenmeister - L'Antoine - La Jeannette; La Socrates; Sonata in C; Sonata in F; Sonata in b flat minor

Some people believe that history is a fair judge. Music history proves otherwise. Quite a number of composers have disappeared from the radar, who were highly respected in their own time, and whose music turns out to be of excellent quality, if it is rediscovered. Carl Friedrich Christian Fasch is a case in point. Due to historical circumstances and personal issues he has never made it to the programmes of ensembles and keyboard players, and only a few of his works are available on disc. One of his vocal works, a mass for sixteen voices, is probably his best-known piece, and has been recorded twice. The keyboard works that Philippe Grisvard has recorded, all appear on disc for the first time.

Carl Friedrich Christian was the son of Johann Friedrich, who for many years was Kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt-Zerbst. The father may have wanted his son to succceed him, but the latter had other plans. When he was studyding with Johann Wilhelm Hertel at the court of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, he attracted the attention of Frantisek Benda, whom he accompanied him during a performance. Benda, violinist at the court of Frederick the Great, recommended him to his employer, who then appointed him as his harpsichordist, alongside Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. The two men were to accompany him in alternation when he played the flute in his private concerts. Unfortunately, shortly after Fasch's arrival the Seven Years' War broke out, and music life at the court came to a halt. As a result he was without employment, and had to fill his time as a keyboard teacher. After the end of the war, Frederick refused to compensate his musicians for their losses. Fasch wanted to move on, but was persuaded to stay. Music life never returned to its former glory, as Frederick had lost much of his interest in music as well as much of his technical skills. Fasch had suffered from bad health all his life, and it deteriorated quickly. In 1786 his life took a new turn, when Frederick's successor, Frederick William II, reconfirmed his position and salary. It resulted in a physical and mental revival. Unfortunately, he burned what reminded him of his earlier life, and that included his compositions.

In 1783 he had become acquainted with a sixteen-part mass by Orazio Benevoli, given to him by the Kapellmeister Johann Friedrich Reichardt. He copied the piece, which inspired him to compose a mass for the same scoring. However, it was impossible to perform it. In 1789 Fasch brought together twelve amateurs singers, for whom he started to compose. The quality was such that it resulted in a permanent organization, known as the Singakademie. His role in the development of choral singing in Germany is overshadowed by the fame of his successor, Carl Friedrich Zelter.

It is interesting that Fasch played an important role in the rediscovery of the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1794 he included one of the latter's motets in the repertoire of his choir. Earlier he had befriended Johann Philipp Kirnberger, one of Bach's greatest admirers. Fasch also accepted Sarah Levy (1761-1854) into the Singakademie. She, a pupil of Kirnberger and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, was an excellent keyboard player and as such a strong promoter of Bach's music. She was a member of the Jewish community, to which also belonged Moses Mendelssohn. He had published a philosophical book, which earned him the nickname of 'German Socrates' or 'Jewish Socrates'. He may well have been the inspiration for one of Fasch's keyboard works included here, La Socrates.

And that brings us to the music that Grisvard selected for this recording. Five of them are character pieces. This genre had its origin in France. Grisvard, in his liner-notes, points out that the Huguenot community was quite large and played an important role in the economic development of Brandenburg. Fasch and his colleagues were acquainted with French music, possibly due to the dissemination of this repertoire by members of the Huguenot community. Fasch was not the only composer who wrote character pieces; Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach did the same. The programme opens with three pieces that seem to belong together: La Hagenmeister, l'Antoine and La Jeannette. In several sources they are included in this same order under the title of Sonatina. That makes much sense, as the first and third are in a fast tempo, whereas the second is a slow melancholic piece. The influence of the Empfindsamkeit is quite clear here. About the meaning of the titles one can only speculate.

These pieces may have been written between 1760 and 1770. In 1782 J.J. Hummel published the Ariette avec quatorze variations in Amsterdam and Berlin. However, these variations and those by CPE Bach on the same theme appear in succession in a manuscript from 1760, which indicates that they date from about the same time as the character pieces. The theme is from the pen of Johann Friedrich Agricola, but Fasch altered and extended it. The variations demonstrate Fasch's own skills in keyboard technique and his creativity in the treatment of the material. The penultimate variation is another reference to the Empfindsamkeit. That also turns up in some of the sonatas.

The Sonata in F is the earliest of the three, and probably dates from 1770. Grisvard sees here a certain dichotomy as far as the most appropriate instrument is concerned. The two outer movements are best suited to the harpsichord, but the dramatic middle movement points in the direction of the clavichord or fortepiano. This seems typical of the time, when several instruments appeared alongside each other. It seems to me that for this sonata a harpsichord or probably a tangent piano would have been preferable, although a fortepiano is not out of the question. Interestingly, Grisvard sees in this piece the two sides of the composer: "[The] two fast movements show Fasch as one can see him in his portraits, namely amiable, benevolent, and with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. The Andante, on the other hand, reveals the inside of the man whom Zelter portrayed in his writings: disillusioned, afflicted, and ill."

In music of the second half of the 18th century, many keyboard works include so-called Alberti basses, "[left-hand] accompaniment figure[s] in keyboard music consisting of broken triads whose notes are played in the order: lowest, highest, middle, highest" (New Grove). This figure is mostly associated with pieces in the galant idiom. However, the two other sonatas, which include such figures, show that it could also be used in other kind of works, as these sonatas are certainly not of a galant nature. The Sonata in C may have been written around 1780. Grisvard sees here the influence of the Viennese classical style. He mentions that Viennese music was played in Berlin, for instance by the above-mentioned Sarah Levy. This sonata is technically more challenging than the previous one, for instance because of the crossing of the hands.

The Sonata in B flat minor dates from 1781, and is dedicated to the daughter of a lawyer, who belonged to the intellectual circles of Berlin and was a close friend of Fasch's. It is an indication of the composer's social standing. Here the technical challenges include "uncomfortable intervallic leaps" (Grisvard). In this work the entire range of the keyboard is explored. The adagio is again the expressive centre-piece, and includes pauses as we find them in music of the Empfindsamkeit.

With this disc Philippe Grisvard has firmly put Carl Friedrich Christian Fasch on the map. Nobody can contend that history is a fair judge as far as he is concerned. His music has been unjustly ignored, and it is to be hoped that this recording may make people change their mind. I found an interesting comment on this disc by Brian Clark, who is a Fasch specialist. "[Where] the older man's music speaks directly to me, the little I had heard of the younger Fasch's music always seemed to start well but not have enough to sustain it. This new CD has forced me to challenge that opinion. Grisvard presents a composer who is full of ideas, and clearly an excellent keyboard player!" Grisvard has not only done the younger Fasch justice by performing a selection of his keyboard music, but also by his engaging and brilliant style of playing and his excellent liner-notes. This disc is a true monument for a composer, whose keyboard works deserve to be part of the standard repertoire, just like that of his contemporary CPE Bach.

There is just one issue: as I already indicated, the harpsichord or an earlier fortepiano may have been a better choice for the earlier pieces. For the late works the fortepiano, attributed to by Johann André Stein, and dating from 1790, seems an appropriate choice.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Philippe Grisvard

CD Reviews