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Wilhelm Friedemann BACH (1710 - 1784): Keyboard Works

[I] "Keyboard Works - 4"
Julia Browna, Barbara Bairdb, harpsichord
rec: March 26 - 27, 2012, Eugene, Ore., The University of Oregon (Beall Concert Hall)
Naxos - 8.573027 (© 2013) (78'57")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[II] "Claviermusik II"
Léon Berben, harpsichordc, square pianod
rec: Feb 3 - 5, 2014, Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum
Carus - 83.388 (© 2014) (78'56")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Concerto a 2 cembali concertati in F (F 10 / BR WFB A 12)ab; Fantasia in c minor (F 16 / BR WFB A 19)c; Fantasia in e minor (F 20 / BR WFB A 23)d Sonata in C (F deest / BR WFB A 1)c; Sonata in C (F 1b / BR WFB A 2a)a; Sonata in D (F 3 / BR WFB A 4)a; Sonata in D (F 4 / BR WFB A 5)c; Sonata in e minor (F deest / BR WFB A 9)d; Sonata in E flat (F deest / BR WFB A 8)c; Sonata in F (F 202 / BR WFB A 10)a; Sonata in F (F 6b / BR WFB 11b)d


Wilhelm Friedemann Bach is one of the most interesting characters in music history. He lived and worked in the shadow of his father who in his time was considered the greatest organist in Germany. In his capacity as their teacher he exerted a strong influence on his sons, especially his eldest. They found it hard to deal with that influence. Whereas Carl Philipp Emanuel soon found his own style and developed into the main keyboard composer of Germany in the third quarter of the 18th century Wilhelm Friedemann's reputation was almost exclusively based on his skills as an organist and especially as an improvisor. As a composer of keyboard music he was far less successful, wandering between the various styles in vogie in his time.

In 2007 Naxos started a series of recordings devoted to Wilhelm Friedemann's complete output for keyboard. The fourth volume includes the Sonata in D (BR WFB A 4) which bears witness to the less than enthusiastic reception of his keyboard works. It was his first printed work and was intended as the first of a set of six sonatas but no other sonatas were printed. Editions of keyboard music were mostly intended for amateurs or comprised pieces for either professionals (Kenner) or amateurs (Liebhaber). But this sonata was technically far too complicated for amateurs. It is a long work and includes many idiosyncracies in the realm of harmony, especially in the second movement. As Julia Brown suggests in her liner-notes, "its expression was probably also too personal to appeal to the average keyboard player". This seems to be a feature of Friedemann's compositions: he was often out of step with the fashion of his time.

That doesn't mean that he was completely indifferent to modern trends. The Sonata in C (BR WFB A 2a) has been preserved in two versions: the original grave which is hardly more than a transitional passage between the two fast movements, was replaced in a later version by a pair of menuets. Friedemann also changed the harmony of the first movement. The Sonata in F (BR WFB A 11b) underwent the same procedure: the slow movement (larghetto) was replaced by a menuet and the fast movements were also revised.

A large amount of keyboard music from the mid-18th century was in two parts; often the right hand played all the thematic material whereas the left hand was reduced to an accompanying role, often in the form of Alberti basses or drum basses. That is not the case in the two two-part sonatas by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach which are included in Léon Berben's programme. The Sonata in D (BR WFB A 5) was originally dedicated to Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia - sister of Frederick the Great and for some time Friedemann's patroness - but the dedication was later erased from the manuscript as their relationship "was severed as a result of intrigues", according to Peter Wollny in the liner-notes to the Carus disc. "It was believed that a composer who had truly mastered the intricate secrets of harmony and counterpoint could reveal them, undisguised, in a two-part setting without the ear wanting for a lack of sonority or sensing the musical logic". Counterpoint plays an important role in this sonata and that sets it apart from the bulk of what was written for the keyboard at the time. The Sonata in E flat (BR WFB A 8) is comparable with the Sonata in D. It has been preserved in manuscript without the name of the composer but on stylistic grounds it is attributed to Friedemann.

Two sonatas are connected to one of Friedemann's best-known chamber music works, the Sonata in e minor (BR WFB B 10). The Sonata in e minor (BR WFB A 9) is the keyboard version of this flute sonata; it was believed lost (as indicated in the work-list in New Grove) but has been rediscovered recently. It is an early work which includes canonic imitations. Some material from the same sonata is also incorporated in the middle movement (siciliana) from Sonata in F (BR WFB A 10).

Léon Berben includes two fantasias. These are almost certainly the written-out versions of improvisations. The Fantasia in c minor which was composed in 1773 is one of the most remarkable pieces in Berben's programme. It is an example of Sturm und Drang and consists of episodes of a strongly contrasting character which follow each other without interruption. Among those episodes are some which are dominated by brilliant arpeggios. This fantasia was written for an aristocrat as the recipient told Johann Nikolaus Forkel in a letter. The Fantasia in e minor (BR WFB A 23) dates from 1770 and is in three parts. It is much more 'conventional', so to speak, than the Fantasia in c minor.

Julia Brown is joined by Barbara Baird for a performance of the Concerto in F for two keyboards, one of Wilhelm Friedemann's best-known keyboard works. It was performed and recorded before Friedemann's other keyboard works were given serious attention. In the composer's autograph it is called a concerto and that is also its title in a copy by Johann Sebastian. The latter indicates that it is an early work. It has also caused some confusion: in 1894 the old Bach Gesellschaft published it under Johann Sebastian's name with the alternative titles of sonata and duetto. The music also gives some reason to call it a sonata: in the first two movements Friedemann makes use of the sonata form; it is in the last movement that the piece suggests that it is a reduction of a work for two keyboards and orchestra. However, there seems to be no evidence that such a version ever existed.

I am not very enthusiastic about the performance of this work; it is not very imaginative and too moderate in regard to ornamentation. The playing is too straightforward and the tempi are slowish. The latter is a feature of Julia Brown's disc as a whole. It is a little odd that the Sonata in D (BR WFB A 4) was also included in the first volume of the Naxos series. There Robert Hill played it on the fortepiano. The differences are striking, especially in regard to tempo. Julia Brown's performance takes 28'43", whereas Robert Hill needs only 18'13". The first movement is un poco allegro; Hill's tempo is faster but seems not at odds with this indication, although at first I didn't consider Brown too slow here. More problematic is the adagio: Brown needs almost 11 minutes to Hill's six. The latter has the right tempo; in Brown's performance the music almost comes to a standstill and loses its coherence. In the Sonata in C (BR WFB A 2a) Brown also has the slower tempo in comparison to Léon Berben. His performance is superior as it is more imaginative and lively; his articulation is better and through a clear differentiation between good and bad notes he suggests dynamic contrasts which a harpsichord can't produce in a strictly technical sense.

I had expected Berben to use the square piano in the later works. He indeed uses it in the Fantasia in e minor from 1770 but plays the Fantasia in c minor at the harpsichord. But the sonatas in e minor and in F are both relatively early works and these are played on the square piano. That seems hardly justified from a historical point of view and I can't quite figure out what was the reason for this choice. However, musically Berben delivers outstanding performances. This is the second volume of what seems to be another complete recording of Friedemann's keyboard works. The first volume was released in 2010, this second volume in 2014. Let's hope we don't need to wait until 2018 for the third disc to appear.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Léon Berben

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