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Wilhelm Friedemann BACH (1710 - 1784): Keyboard Works

[A] "Keyboard Works - 1"
Robert Hill, fortepiano

rec: Sept 25 - 28, 2005, Chaux (Territoire de Belfort, F), Église St Martin
Naxos - 8.557966 (© 2007) (64'21")

[B] "Keyboard Works - 2"
Julia Brown, harpsichord

rec: Sept 20 - 21, 2007, Eugene, Ore., AGR Performing Arts Center
Naxos - 8.570530 (© 2008) (74'07")

[A] Fantasia in a minor (F 23 / BR WFB A 26); Polonaise C (F 12,1 / BR WFB A 27); Polonaise c minor (F 12,2 / BR WFB A 28); Polonaise D (F 12,3 / BR WFB A 29); Polonaise d minor (F 12,4 / BR WFB A 30); Polonaise E flat (F 12,5 / BR WFB A 31); Polonaise e flat minor (F 12,6 / BR WFB A 32); Polonaise E (F 12,7 / BR WFB A 33); Polonaise e minor (F 12,8 / BR WFB A 34); Polonaise F (F 12,9 / BR WFB A 35); Polonaise f minor (F 12,10 / BR WFB A 36); Polonaise G (F 12,11 / BR WFB A 37); Polonaise g minor (F 12,12 / BR WFB A 38); Sonata in D (F 3 / BR WFB A 4)
[B] Fantasia in c minor (F nv2); Fantasia in c minor (F 15 / BR WFB A 19); Fantasia in d minor (F 18 / BR WFB A 21); Fantasia in d minor (F 19 / BR WFB A 22); Fantasia in e minor (F 21 / BR WFB A 24); Fantasia in a minor (F 23 / BR WFB A 26); Fugue No 1 in C (F 31,1 / BR WFB A 81); Fugue No 2 in c minor (F 31,2 / BR WFB A 82); Fugue No 3 in D (F 31,3 / BR WFB A 83); Fugue No 4 in d minor (F 31,4 / BR WFB A 84); Fugue No 5 in E flat (F 31,5 / BR WFB A 85); Fugue No 6 in e minor (F 31,6 / BR WFB A 86); Fugue No 7 in B flat (F 31,7 / BR WFB A 87); Fugue No 8 in f minor (F 31,8 / BR WFB A 88)

By all accounts Wilhelm Friedemann Bach had a difficult character. It is food for psychologists to figure out what has made him the personality he was, but it is very likely it was the result of being the favourite of his father. Reinhard Goebel, former leader of the disbanded ensemble Musica antiqua Köln, may be right by writing that "he could probably have benefitted from an occasional kick up the backside". Fact is that he never got a job which gave him or his employers any real satisfaction. Towards the end of his life he tried to earn a living as a freelance organist, giving concerts in Germany. But even though he was generally considered the greatest organist alive the heydays of the organ had gone and in 1784 he died in Berlin as a poor and embittered man.

It is tempting to see Friedemann's character reflected in his music. Whereas he composed a number of church cantatas which are stylistically very close to his father's, in his instrumental works and his compositions for keyboard he seems to wander forth and back between the style of the baroque era and the styles which were fashionable in his own time. His character and his music have given Robert Hill reasons to label him as "the first Romantic". In the programme notes of his recording he writes: "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".

It is probably these features which resulted in almost none of his keyboard works being printed during his lifetime. The Sonata in D (F 3 / BR WFB A 4) which Robert Hill has included in his programme, was Wilhelm Friedemann's first publication, but it wasn't received very well by the amateurs for whom it was intended. It was technically too complicated, and its expression was also probably too personal to appeal to the average keyboard player. It was meant to be the first of a series of six sonatas, but no further sonatas were printed. In particular the middle movement (adagio) is harmonically unsettling by its repeated modulations.

The series of 12 Polonaises are written as a cycle as the sequence of keys indicates. Composing in all keys was a common phenomenon in the 18th century: Wilhelm Friedemann's cycle was preceded by collections like the Wohltemperirte Clavier of his father and the Ariadne Musica by Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer. The polonaise was also fasionable in the 18th century. A number of composers wrote such pieces, but these had little to do with the original Polish dance. According to Robert Hill, "the Poles themselves disdained as inauthentic the German association of a characteristic rhythm with this dance". He is referring here to the 3/4 rhythm which all polonaises, including these twelve by Wilhelm Friedemann, have in common.

They were first published in 1819 by Friedrich Conrad Griepenkerl (1782 - 1849), who also published and performed works by Johann Sebastian. Interestingly his edition contains dynamic markings. Shortly before World War II a comparison with the autograph - disappeared since the war - showed that these markings were Wilhelm Friedemann's own. And although his edition was printed with the designation 'for the Fortepiano' he stated that the Polonaises were intended for the clavichord and then instructed pianists how to imitate the clavichord. Robert Hill has chosen to perform them on a fortepiano, but doesn't explain why he has done so. In his programme notes he even doesn't refer to the clavichord at all. Fortunately he hasn't chosen a fortepiano of too late a date: the instrument he uses is "a reconstruction of a Florentine fortepiano c.1720 in the manner of Bartolomeo Cristofori", made by Keith Hill.

This instrument certainly helps to bring about the character of these Polonaises, and I am generally pleased by Robert Hill's performances. Still I think that a performance on a clavichord is preferable. Without comparing the two recordings in detail I think the recording by Steve Barrell (1989; Globe GLO 5035) does more justice to these pieces. A striking difference is the duration of the Polonaises: Steve Barrell takes considerably more time, partly because he observes all repeats, but also because he chooses moderate tempi. In his programme notes he quotes the German theorist Johann Friedrich Reichardt who states that "the Polonaise must be played very lively, more lively than one is used to playing it, but not very fast". I find Barrell's tempi more satisfying as the expression of these Polonaises are brought to the fore even more than in Robert Hill's interpretation. His performance of the Sonata in D is excellent, and his playing is very responsive to the peculiarities of this intriguing piece.

Wilhelm Friedemann's compositions may not have appealed to amateur keyboard players and therefore not been published - with the exception of the sonata just mentioned - they were appreciated by professional keyboard players. While still alive many of his compositions were widely disseminated in manuscript. As a result their authenticity can't always be established. In the programme of the second volume, for instance, the Fantasia in c minor (Fk nv2), has also been attributed to Johann Wilhelm Hässler (1747 - 1822), another organ virtuoso who travelled through Germany to give concerts. This, by the way, also puts the unique character of Wilhelm Friedemann's compositions in some perspective. The features of his oeuvre were partly reflecting the time he lived in, where old and new met, conflicted, and sometimes merged.

The music on the second disc reflects this. The 8 Fugues 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 his organ sonatas - also without pedal part - for her. Characterwise the fugues are rather chamber music. The subjects are very peculiar and often surprising. A feature of these fugues is that the tonalities are clearly characterised, much in accordance with the definitions by Johann Mattheson. As Julia Brown writes: "The variety of affects used and the highly individualized subjects make them sound more like character pieces". As Wilhelm Friedemann was famous for his improvisations I like the way Julia Brown plays them, with subtle rubato and slight variety in the tempo. They really sound like they are improvised which makes this interpretation very captivating.

The fugues are interspersed by a number of Fantasias. In fact, it is the other way round: as the fantasias are much longer they are interspersed by the fugues. These fantasias also reflect the conflict between old and new. The longest contain a large number of contrasting sections. It is a shame the tracklist doesn't specify them. Just to give one example, the Fantasia in e minor (F 21 / BR WFB A 24) 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 A 22), 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.

In her performances Julia Brown aimes at pointing out the contrasts in these Fantasias. She takes her time in the slow sections, some of which are played really slow, and she also isn't afraid of breathing spaces between phrases or sections. I think the fast sections could have taken a bit faster, as the Fantasias take considerably more time here than in other recordings. Having said that Julia Brown is well able to keep the listener's attention, even in the Fantasia in c minor (F 15 / BR WFB A 19) which opens the programme and lasts almost 19 minutes.

Like I said the fugues are often played on the organ. Another possibility for the fugues and the fantasias could be the clavichord. Its dynamic possibilities are very appropriate to underline the contrasts within the fantasias. But the choice of the harpsichord is plausible as the date of composition of most pieces is not known, and the harpsichord was very much in use until Wilhelm Friedemann's death in 1784.

Despite the critical remarks to both recordings I don't think nobody interested in Wilhelm Friedemann Bach's keyboard oeuvre is going to be disappointed while listening to them. Together they deliver a fascinating portrait of one of the most intriguing composers of the 18th century.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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Robert Hill

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