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Johann Christian BACH (1735 - 1782): Sonatas op. 5 & op. 17

[I] "Six Sonatas op. 5"
Bart van Oort, fortepiano
rec: Feb 8 & June 24, 2013, Velp (Neth), Klooster EmmaŁs
Brilliant Classics - 94634 (© 2013) (56'01")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Sonata in B flat, op. 5,1 (Warb A1); Sonata in D, op. 5,2 (Warb A2); Sonata in G, op. 5,3 (Warb A3); Sonata in E flat, op. 5,4 (Warb A4); Sonata in E, op. 5,5 (Warb A5); Sonata in c minor, op. 5,6 (Warb A6)

[II] "Six Sonatas op. 17"
Bart van Oort, fortepiano
rec: June 25 & Sept 30, 2013, Velp (Neth), Klooster EmmaŁs
Brilliant Classics - 94661 (© 2014) (59'22")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Sonata in G, op. 17,1 (Warb A7); Sonata in c minor, op. 17,2 (Warb A8); Sonata in E flat, op. 17,3 (Warb A 9); Sonata in G, op. 17,4 (Warb A 10); Sonata in A, op. 17,5 (Warb A 11); Sonata in B flat, op. 17,6 (Warb A 12)

Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of Johann Sebastian, is in various ways an a-typical Bach. He was the only one who had a vivid interest in composing operas, which was one of the reasons he moved to Italy. There he converted to the Roman Catholic Church and took a position as organist in Milan. He then moved to London which was one of the main cultural centres in Europe at the time. Stylistically he probably moved further away from his father than any of his brothers. In modern times he is clearly overshadowed by Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann whose music is much more frequently performed than his. Johann Christian is one of the main representatives of the galant idiom and for a long time that was not a recommendation. This style was considered rather superficial: galant music went in one ear and out the other and didn't make a lasting impression. Slowly that view is reconsidered, and that has everything to do with the use of period instruments.

The Sonatas op. 5 are a landmark in music history especially because they had strong influence on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. On his concert tour across Europe, together with his father Leopold and sister Nannerl, he stayed for some time in London and met Johann Christian personally. The result was a strong and lasting friendship. Until the end of Bach's life Mozart held him in high esteem. When Bach died Mozart wrote to his father: "What a loss for the world of music!". He arranged three of the sonatas from op. 5, the numbers 2 to 4, as concertos for keyboard, two violins and bass. This is the main reason this set became Bach's best-known music well before the rest of his oeuvre was taken seriously.

Printed editions with keyboard music were mostly aimed at the fast-growing market of amateurs, and that was especially the case in England where domestic music-making at the homes of the bourgeoisie was booming at the time Bach lived in London. He had certainly this kind of players in mind when he composed his sonatas. This was also observed by the music historian Charles Burney, who wrote: "In general, his compositions for the pianoforte are such as ladies can execute with little trouble; and the allegros rather resemble bravura songs, than instrumental pieces for the display of great executions". The mentioning of the pianoforte suggests that Bach's sonatas were conceived for this instrument which was rather new in the time they were published (1766). However, we should not jump to conclusions from this statement which doesn't specifically refer to the op. 5. At that time various instruments coexisted: the harpsichord, the fortepiano and probably also the spinet. Because of that it is impossible to say that a specific instrument is the best medium for these sonatas.

The first of the set includes dynamic markings which reflect the fashion of the time. It suggests the fortepiano, but could also be performed at the harpsichord. From around the middle of the century harpsichords with devices as machine stops and Venetian swell were built in attempts to save the harpsichord from being pushed off the music scene. The Sonata in E, op. 5,5 opens with an allegro assai which is "all noise and technical fireworks", as Sylvia Berry writes in the booklet to the present disc. She continues: "One way composers achieved dynamics at the harpsichord was by simple addition and subtraction: the more notes there are, the louder it is, and vice versa. The first and last movements feature typical 'noise-making' devices in the left hand that were used by many harpsichord composers to create more volume and a fuller texture (...)." The sixth sonata begins with a grave which then turns attacca into a fugue, and this could again suggest the use of the harpsichord. On the other hand, the opening movement of the second sonata, which Berry connects with military music, partly because of the key of D major, comes particularly well off on the fortepiano.

One specific form of fortepiano was the square or table piano which was very popular in England at the time and was produced in large numbers, also because it was relatively cheap. It would have been an interesting option to perform these sonatas on such an instrument. There seems to be a good argument in its favour. In his liner-notes to Robert Woolley's recording of the Sonatas op. 17 (Chandos, 1993) Richard Maunder writes that "in 1766 he (Bach) apparently collaborated with the (fortepiano) maker Johannes Zumpe in publishing his op. 5 Sonatas for Piano Forte or Harpsichord at exactly the time that the latter produced the first of his immensely popular English square pianos. These sonatas (...) are exactly tailored to Zumpe's new instruments, and must have greatly helped their commercial success." In her liner-notes Berry mentions this option, and adds that this was an instrument for domestic music-making, but not for public performances. She states that it is hard to imagine that Bach performed exclusively on them when good grand pianos were available. That may be plausible, but we cannot be sure that Bach performed these sonatas in public himself. Moreover, the use of the kind of piano Bart van Oort plays here is certainly not very plausible. I find it hard to understand that someone as knowledgeable as Van Oort decides to use a copy of a fortepiano by Anton Walter from around 1795. That is not the kind of instrument which was known in England at the time. An opportunity has been missed to perform these sonatas on the instruments which were in vogue in Johann Christian's time, be it a harpsichord with dynamic devices or a square piano or even an English grand piano from the 1760s or 1770s.

It is questionable whether Charles Burney was right in stating that Bach's compositions for the fortepiano could be executed by ladies - used as the personification of the average amateur - "with little trouble". Some sonatas, especially in the set published as op. 17 in London in 1777, are quite virtuosic. It was common to put together sets of sonatas of different levels in playing technique and different character. The set was first published in Paris, but it is unlikely Bach specifically composed them for the French market. There are reasons to believe that they were written long before the year of publication. Ernest Warburton, specialist in Bach's oeuvre and the editor of the catalogue of his works, believes that some may have been written in the early 1760s, before Bach settled in England. It is often stated that these sonatas were specifically intended for the fortepiano, for instance considering the dynamic markings, but that is questionable if some of them are much older, albeit often in earlier versions.

The opening sonata is the easiest, and comprises two movements, the second of which is a set of variations. The second is very different, technically much more demanding but also different in character as is indicated by the key of c minor. As Warburton states it was unusual for a set of sonatas published in the second half of the 18th century to include a piece in a minor key (Bach had concluded the op. 5 with a sonata in the same key). The track-list of the present recording gives allegretto as the tempo of the first movement but that seems the choice of the performer as the three editions from the 18th century don't give a tempo indication. This should have been indicated in the track-list. This sonata has three movements and so has the Sonata in B flat, op. 17,6 which ends with another brilliant movement. It is not without dark streaks either, especially the andante in the centre. It is the only sonata which seems to have been written with the fortepiano in mind. Some movements in these sonatas are reminiscent of the keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. Notable is the opening movement of the Sonata in E flat, op. 17,3 which is dominated by trills.

Bart van Oort uses the same instrument here as in the op. 5 sonatas. The choice a fortepiano seems more justified, and a table piano a less plausible option, especially considering the technically challenging nature of some pieces. However, an earlier - and in particular English - instrument would have been preferable. Other recordings - Robert Woolley and Harald Hoeren on fortepiano and Judit Peteri on harpsichord - are not really convincing either as far as the choice of instruments is concerned

The unsatisfying treatment of this issue is all the more regrettable as Bart van Oort's interpretations are excellent. He is a seasoned performer of classical and romantic repertoire on fortepianos, and he takes Johann Christian Bach's music fully seriously. He pays much attention to the different features of the respective sonatas, and his interpretations do justice to the stylistic differences within these two sets. The easier pieces come off as well as the more brilliant ones. His playing is very clear: even in the fastest movements the musical discourse is easy to follow, especially due to his very good articulation.

These discs should be able to reverse the one-sided and basically incorrect view that Johann Christian Bach composed easy-listening music.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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Bart van Oort

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