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Johann Christian BACH (1735 - 1782): Keyboard Sonatas

[I] Six Sonatas Opus 5
Sophie Yates, harpsichorda

rec: Nov 28 - 29, 2005, Bristol, St George's Church, Brandon Hill
Chandos - CHAN 0762 ( 2009) (67'48")

[II] Sonatas from Opus 5 & Opus 17
Nicolau de Figueiredo, harpsichordb

rec: Oct 2008, Moutiers au Perche
Passacaille - 961 ( 2010) (72'53")

Sonata in B flat, op. 5,1 (Warb A 1)a [1]; Sonata in D, op. 5,2 (Warb A 2)ab [1]; Sonata in G, op. 5,3 (Warb A 3)ab [1]; Sonata in E flat, op. 5,4 (Warb A 4)a [1]; Sonata in E, op. 5,5 (Warb A 5)ab [1]; Sonata in c minor, op. 5,6 (Warb A 6)a [1]; Sonata in c minor, op. 17,2 (Warb A 8)b [2]; Sonata in B flat, op. 17,6 (Warb A 12)b [2]

(Sources: [1] Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord or Pianoforte opus 5, 1766; [2] Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord or Pianoforte opus 17, 1779)

Johann Christian Bach doesn't have a particularly good name. I don't think I have ever heard any of his music in a live performance, and recordings of his works are generally not welcomed with great enthusiasm. Ironically the recording of his complete orchestral works by the Hanover Band for CPO hasn't done him any good, maybe even on the contrary. The performances were just too feeble and made it hard to understand why his music was so popular in his time.

Although Johann Christian was educated as a keyboard player, first by his father and then by his brother Carl Philipp Emanuel, he didn't compose much for the keyboard before his move to England. In fact, when he had settled there he stated that because of his lack of playing during his time in Italy he had lost some of his skills. Although his playing in England made his fingers regain some of them he insisted that "he could never give them back the strength and agility to master the greatest difficulties. In general, his compositions for the pianoforte are such as ladies can execute with little trouble" (Charles Burney, General History of Music, 1789).

If we have to take this litterally - and why should we not - than we must conclude that the technical skills of those ladies was considerable. There may be a general view that Johann Christian's keyboard works are easy-listening stuff and relatively simple to play. That could well be the reason they are rather badly represented on disc. But these two discs bear witness to the fact that the technical level and also the substance of his keyboard sonatas is substantial.

The set of Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord or Pianoforte opus 5 was printed in 1766 and were the first compositions published in London which specifically mentioned the fortepiano as one of the options for performance. Considering the year of publication and the fact that the fortepiano hadn't fully established itself yet, it is understandable that both artists have chosen the harpsichord. Nicolau Figueiredo is playing a copy of a French instrument by Goujon (1749), which I find rather unlucky. The sound is quite brilliant and rather loud, and that makes it less suitable for this repertoire. Sophie Yates' instrument is not specified, but its more gentle sound is more appropriate for these sonatas.

The six sonatas in opus 5 are quite different in character. The Sonatas 1, 3 and 4 have two movements, which is typical of music of a diverting character, whereas the other three sonatas are in three movements. The Sonata in E, op. 5,5 is the most ambitious and expansive of the set, and requires great technical skills. The two outer movements have the tempo indications 'allegro assai' and 'prestissimo' respectively, and both artists play them very fast. Figueiredo is a tiny slower, and as a result the articulation is a little better than Sophie Yates'. The middle movement is a lyrical adagio, in which the right hand plays a beautiful melody. The difference between the two lines is emphasized by Ms Yates by playing the left hand with the buff stop. The Sonata in c minor, op. 5,6 is remarkable for the depth of the first movement, grave, which merges into the next attacca; this 'allegro moderato' is a fugue - a traditional element in music by a composer who always put the melody in the first place.

The two sonatas from opus 17 are longer and technically even more demanding. The Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord or Pianoforte opus 17 were published in London in 1779, but in 1773/74 an edition had been printed in Paris as opus 12. According to Marc Vignal these sonatas "clearly demanded the piano, though (...) could be played on the harpsichord". Nicolau Figuereido plays these two sonatas at the harpsichord as well. And there is no reason not to, and in fact I find the use of the French harpsichord less of a problem here than in opus 5, probably because of the greater brilliance of the sonatas from opus 17. The Sonata in B flat, op. 17,6 is the only one in the set using a compass of five octaves, and with its length of about 20 minutes it goes well beyond the scope of a merely diverting piece. This is a sonata of classical proportions, both technically and in regard to content. Nicolau Figureido's performance is impressive, exploring the character of the sonata to the full.

With all the differences between these two discs I don't hesitate to recommend them both, as they give a good impression of the substantial qualities of Johann Christian Bach's keyboard oeuvre. Hopefully they will contribute to overcoming the prejudices against the music of the London Bach.

Johan van Veen ( 2010)

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Sophie Yates

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