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Johann Christian & Johann Christoph Friedrich BACH: "Keyboard Concertos"

The Music Collection

rec: March 6 - 8, 2007, Weston (Hertfordshire), Weston Parish Church
Naxos - 8.570474 (© 2008) (71'38")

Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782): Concerto in D, op. 13,2 (Warb C 63); Concerto in B flat, op. 13,4 (Warb C 65); Johann Christoph Friedrich BACH (1732-1795): Concerto in E flat (BR JCFB C 29) (formerly: Warb YC 90)a; Concerto in A (BR JCFB C 30) (formerly: Warb YC 91)a

Susan Alexander-Max, fortepiano; Simon Standage, Nicolette Moonen, violin; Trevor Jones, violaa; Jennifer Ward-Clarke, cello

In the 18th century two important developments in the realm of keyboard music took place. Firstly, the role of the keyboard in music for instrumental ensemble changed. Traditionally it was limited to playing the basso continuo. But during the first half of the 18th century composers began to write music in which the keyboard was given a concertante part. Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the first to do so in his harpsichord concertos and his sonatas for keyboard and violin. Secondly, the dominance of the harpsichord was broken around the middle of the century with the emergence of the fortepiano which had been developed around 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori.

It wasn't until the 1770s that the fortepiano was fully accepted as an alternative to the harpsichord. Most music for keyboard, whether solo or as part of an instrumental ensemble, could be played on harpsichord or fortepiano. That does not mean it doesn't matter which instrument is chosen. It is an established fact that Johann Christian Bach played the fortepiano in public concerts, and that makes it plausible to choose this instrument to perform the two concertos recorded here. They were written in the 1770s, and when Bach played them the fortepiano still wasn't a common instrument in England. In her liner notes Susan Alexander-Max writes that when Bach was playing the fortepiano in public, Muzio Clementi - who was to become a manufacturer of fortepianos - was still playing the harpsichord.

These two concertos are written in the galant idiom Johann Christian was famous for. The melody is the most important part of these compositions. And as Bach always had a good feeling for what would go down well with his audience, the Concerto in B flat ends with an 'allegro con moto' which is based on the Scottish song 'The Yellow-haired Laddie'. It is notable that these concertos are scored for keyboard, two violins and cello, without a part for the viola. This strongly suggests a performance with one instrument per part, a practice which is followed here. The fortepiano isn't specified in the booklet. It is a nice-sounding instrument, but a table piano had probably been more appropriate, as the recording by David Owen Norris and Sonnerie shows.

The two other concertos on this disc were previously attributed to Johann Christian Bach as well. But recent research has revealed that they were written by his older brother Johann Christoph Friedrich, generally known as the Bückeburger Bach. They are quite different from Johann Christian's concertos. The scoring includes a part for viola, and the whole texture suggests a larger ensemble than one instrument per part. That doesn't mean that this 'minimalistic' scoring is historically wrong, just that a larger ensemble would give these concertos more impact. The fortepiano used here is more appropriate in these concertos than in Johann Christian's.

The two concertos by Johann Christoph Friedrich are also different in their idiom. The slow movements bear the traces of the Empfindsamkeit. In both the strings play with mute, which was a very common phenemenon in solo concertos and symphonies from the middle of the 18th century. The fast movements have some of the nervousness of the Sturm und Drang. In both concertos the keyboard regularly plays drum basses, also a common feature of music from the mid-18th century.

The performances give a good idea of the character and quality of these keyboard concertos. Susan Alexander-Max plays with panache and verve in the fast movements, and exposes the expression in the slow movements quite well. The strings give good support - and that is exactly what their role is. The keyboard is in the centre of the proceedings, and that is reflected by the recording.

This disc is recommendable not only for the quality of the music but also for the performances. The oeuvre of these two sons of Johann Sebastian Bach is still underestimated. This CD could well serve to change that.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

The Music Collection

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