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Wilhelm Friedemann BACH (1710 - 1784): "Complete Harpsichord Music"

Claudio Astronio, harpsichord, organa

rec: March 26 - 29, 2015, Palermo, Villa Scalea; June 21 - 24, 2016, Palermo, Palazzo Drago; Nov 23 - 26, 2016, Bolzano, Benediktinerkloster (Radiokapelle); Feb 3, 2017, Carceri (Padua), Abbazia Santa Maria delle Carceri
Brilliant Classics - 94240 (6 CDs) (© 2017) (6.43'08")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Allegro in D (BR A107); [Allegro] in d minor (BR A108); Christus, der ist mein Leben (BR A101)a; Concerto in G (F 40 / BR A13b); Die Seele Christi heilge mich (BR A102)a; Fantasia in C (F 14 / BR A17); Fantasia in c minor (F 15 / BR A18); Fantasia in c minor (F 16 / BR A19); [Fantasia] in D (F17 / BR A20); Fantasia in d minor (F 18 / BR A21); Fantasia in d minor (F 19 / BR A22); Fantasia in d minor (BR A105); Fantasia in e minor (F 20 / BR A23); Fantasia in e minor (F 21 / BR A24); Fantasia in G (F 22 / BR A25); [Fantasia] in G (BR A106); Fantasia in a minor (F 23 / BR A26); Fugue in c minor (F 32 / BR A89); Fugue in F (F 33 / BR A90)
[8 Fugues] Fugue in C (F 31,1 / BR A81); Fugue in c minor (F 31,2 / BR A82); Fugue in D (F 31,3 / BR A83); Fugue in d minor (F 31,4 / BR A84); Fugue in E flat (F 31,5 / BR A85); Fugue in e minor (F 31,6 / BR A86); Fugue in B flat (F 31,7 / BR A87); Fugue in f minor (F 31,8 / BR A88)
Gigue in G (F 28 / BR A53); La caccia in C (F 26c / BR A51c); March in E flat (F 30 / BR A56); March in F (BR A57); Minuet in g minor (F 25 / BR A48); Minuet I & II in F (BR A50a); Minuet I & II, 3 Variations on Minuet I in F (BR A50b); Minuet & Trio in C (BR A109); Minuet with 13 variations in G (BR A110); Nun freut euch, lieben Christen (BR A104)a; Overture in E flat (BR A59); [Poco] Allegro in C (BR A62)
[12 Polonaises] Polonaise in C (F 12,1 / BR A27); Polonaise in c minor (F 12,2 / BR A28); Polonaise in D (F 12,3 / BR A29); Polonaise in d minor (F 12,4 / BR A30); Polonaise in E flat (F 12,5 / BR A31); Polonaise in e flat minor (F 12,6 / BR A32); Polonaise in E (F 12,7 / BR A33); Polonaise in e minor (F 12,8 / BR A34); Polonaise in F (F 12,9 / BR A35); Polonaise in f minor (F 12,10 / BR A36); Polonaise in G (F 12,11 / BR A37); Polonaise in g minor (F 12,12 / BR A38)
Polonaise & Trio in C (F 13 / BR A58); Prelude in c minor (F 29 / BR A54); Presto in d minor (F 25a / BR A49); Reveille in C (F 27 / BR A52); Sey Lob und Ehr (BR A103)a; Sonata in C (F 1a / BR A2b); Sonata in C (F 2 / BR A3); Sonata in C (F 200 / BR A1); Sonata in D (F 3 / BR A4); Sonata in D (F 4 / BR A5); Sonata in e minor (F 204 / BR A9); Sonata in E flat (F 5 / BR A7); Sonata in E flat (F 201 / BR A8); Sonata in F (F 6a / BR A11); Sonata in F (F 202 / BR A10); Sonata in G (F 7 / BR A14); Sonata in A (F 8 / BR A15); Sonata in B flat (F 9 / BR A16); Suite in G (F 24 / BR A39)

Among the sons of Johann Sebastian Bach the second eldest, Carl Philipp Emanuel, is without any doubt the one whose music is most frequently played and recorded. His oeuvre is also the most sizeable and the most versatile, as he contributed to any genre, except opera. In comparison the eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, receives less attention. His oeuvre is also relatively small. The number of orchestral and chamber works is very modest, and even in the department of keyboard music he can't compete with his younger brother, even though it constitutes the largest part of his output.

Friedemann was generally considered the most brilliant organist of his time. In this respect he was a worthy successor to his father, whose reputation as Germany's leading organist was not disputed, not even among his critics. In his time there was no watershed between the organ and strung keyboard instruments; many pieces could be played on every keyboard instrument. Friedemann's oeuvre includes a small number of organ works, whose authenticity is not established, but his output for a strung keyboard instrument is much larger. Parts of it have enjoyed quite some popularity, especially the polonaises and the fugues, but most of it is hardly known. In recent years Naxos has released a series of recordings with his keyboard oeuvre, but the present disc includes various pieces which are not covered in that project, probably because they were not known at the time of the recording.

By all accounts, Friedemann was a difficult character. The fact that he was his father's favourite son may have something to do with that. Reinhard Goebel, former leader of the disbanded ensemble Musica antiqua Köln, may have been right to write that "he could probably have benefitted from an occasional kick up the backside". However, it was certainly not easy to follow in his father's footsteps, and that was even made much harder because of all the stylistic changes which took place during his lifetime. His brother Emanuel once admitted that they - the sons - had to find a different way of composing for the simple reason that they would never be able to emulate their father. But whereas Emanuel was only too happy to break new ground, Friedemann never seems to have been able to develop his own style. That is to say, one could consider his moving back and forth between the past and the future as the main feature of his compositional style. In his sacred cantatas he stays very close to his father, whereas in his instrumental music he goes along with the fashion of his time. In his keyboard works both the past and the modern trends of the mid-18th century are represented.

In some of his keyboard works Friedemann sticks to the style of the baroque era, dominated by counterpoint. That comes especially to the fore in the fugues (CD 5). In other pieces he is much more up to date. Robert Hill, one of the contributors to the Naxos project, characterises him thus: "From his unhappy biography to his perhaps deserved reputation as the ungrateful recipient of an over-involved father's attention, the artist Wilhelm Friedemann Bach presents us with a mix that by most definitions could qualify as 'Romantic': his individualism, his use of superb compositional technique in the service of poetic poignancy, the way he set up technical barriers for the keyboardist to overcome, his anticipation of harmonic devices central to nineteenth-century tonal language, all these are marks of a genius who was unable to fit into the career paths available in his time". In this description we find several keys to his oeuvre, and also to the fact that a large part of his keyboard works did not go down very well with the keyboard players of his time.

Keyboard music was mostly intended for amateurs, but many of Friedemann's compositions were technically too complicated for them. An example is the Sonata in D (F 3 / BR WFB A 4), which was meant to be the first of a series of six, but no further sonatas were printed. Apart from the technical level, its expression was too personal for amateur players to understand. The latter is the second reason that some of Friedemann's keyboard works were not enthusiastically received. The presto which closes the Sonata in E flat (F 5 / BR WFB A 7) includes hand-crossing passages, which may well have been beyond the capabilities of many amateurs of those days. In the opening movement we find chromaticism and sudden pauses, reflecting the fashion of the time. Two sonatas - F 204 / BR A 9 and F 202 / BR A 10 - include material from Friedemann's Sonata in e minor for flute and basso continuo.

Friedemann was especially admired for his skills in improvisation. One may assume that considerable parts of his keyboard works are the result of improvisations. That is certainly the case with the Fantasias. They strongly vary in length. The longest ones consist of a number of contrasting sections. It is a shame that these are not specified. Just to give one example, the Fantasia in e minor (F 21 / BR WFB A24) has no less than 16 character indications: furioso, recitativ, furioso, andantino, grave, prestissimo, andantino, recitativ, andantino, recitativ, andantino, recitativ, andante (prestissimo), grave, largo, furioso. This sums up pretty well how modern this fantasia is, and in line with the aesthetics of the Empfindsamkeit. But in the Fantasia in d minor (F 19 / BR WFB A22), for instance, Johann Sebastian shows up: it begins with a toccata-like section which is followed by a fugal section - just like some of Bach's harpsichord toccatas. Several fantasias contain many scales and arpeggios, and there are sometimes surprising harmonic progressions.

The series of 12 Polonaises was written as a cycle, as the sequence of keys indicates. Composing in all keys was a common phenomenon in the 18th century; the most famous example is Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-tempered Clavier. The polonaise was also fashionable in the 18th century. A number of composers wrote such pieces, but these had little to do with the original Polish dance. They are very different in character. It is notable that Friedemann included dynamic markings, suggesting the use of a keyboard instrument which allows for dynamic shading, such as the fortepiano and - probably more appropriate here - the clavichord. Astronio decided to play them, as all the other works, on the harpsichord. The dynamic contrasts have to be realised by the change of manuals.

Whereas these pieces represent the 'modern' side of Friedemann's keyboard oeuvre, the fugues represent the world of Johann Sebastian. They were written for keyboard without pedal, but are often played on the organ. There is no objection to this: there is an authorised copy of these fugues with a dedicatory letter to Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia, sister of Frederick the Great. She was an avid player of the organ: Friedemann's brother Carl Philipp Emanuel wrote for her his organ sonatas, also without pedal part. The fact that they omit a pedal part make them fit to be played on a strung keyboard instrument. They are in three parts, and seem a response to Johann Sebastian's Inventions. The form of the fugue became increasingly old-fashioned in Friedemann's days. The same goes for the suite. The Suite in g minor is a good example of the dichtomy of Friedemann's keyboard music. It includes dances which were common in the baroque era: allemande, courante, sarabande and bourrée, but also modern elements, such as a presto and a pair of trios; the latter closes the suite. Also modern are metrical shifts, wide leaps, frequent hand-crossing and chromaticism. The Concerto in G probably dates from the time when Johann Sebastian composed his Italian Concerto; its form is based on the Italian instrumental concerto. Orchestral music is also the inspiration of the Overture in E flat in ABA form: the first section is a French overture with dotted rhythms, which is repeated after a double fugue.

This piece is part of the so-called Vilnius manuscript which also includes the other pieces on the last disc. One of them is the Minuet in G with 13 variations. It is one of the very few pieces in Friedemann's oeuvre where he makes use of the form of the variation, although that was very popular in his time. The four chorale preludes are in three parts, and in the harmony Friedemann sometimes makes use of chromaticism.

David Schulenberg, in his liner-notes, suggests that these pieces may have been intended for a musical clock. That is also the case with several other items, such as the Fantasia in G (BR A25). He mentions that Friedemann, during his time in Halle, cooperated with a local clock maker, which inspired him to write a number of pieces for mechanical instruments.

Brilliant Classics is a specialist in releasing large boxes, sometimes with the complete oeuvre of a composer or at least a particular part of it. Some critics doubt the value of such releases, but I am happy with them. Selections of pieces, such as the keyboard works of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, often include the same works, whereas many others are always omitted. A set of discs as the one reviewed here offers the opportunity to get a more complete picture of his keyboard oeuvre. Maybe not all pieces are of the highest quality, as some observers believe, but I prefer to make my own assessment. I have greatly enjoyed this set, and although I have heard various discs with Friedemann's keyboard works, including the Naxos discs, I was often surprised by the variety in character between single pieces, even within a category, such as the sonatas. The Naxos project is certainly not complete; this set offers a number of pieces which are not included in that series. Claudio Astronio has put much effort into this project, and it has paid off. We get fully idiomatic performances, and Astronio plays with panache and passion.

I already touched the issue of the choice of instrument. Astronio plays three different harpsichords: two are built by Keith Hill, after an anonymous German instrument of 1710 and after Johannes Petrus Bull (1778) respectively. The second harpsichord was built by Ugo Casiglia after Johann Adolph Specken (1748). These are fine instruments and well suited to the repertoire. Even so, I would have preferred the use of the clavichord and maybe also the tangent piano, for the sake of variety, but also because they were quite popular at the time. The organ dates from 2008 and was built by Johannes Rohlff; the booklet does not give any further information about it. The recording is very good: it is close enough to reveal the details of the music, without being over-analytical.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Claudio Astronio

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