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Wilhelm Friedemann BACH (1710 - 1784): Keyboard Works

[I] "Claviermusik I"
Léon Berben, harpsichord

rec: Jan 29 - 31, 2010, Cologne, WDR Funkhaus (Kleiner Saal)
Carus - 83.346 (© 2010) (68'50")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Concerto in G (BR WFB A 13b / F 40); Fantasia in d minor (BR WFB A 105 / F deest); Fantasia in e minor (BR WFB A 24 / F 21); Menuet in F (BR WFB A 50b / F deest); Overture in E flat (BR WFB A 59 / F deest); Sonata in D (BR WFB A 4 / F 3); Sonata in F (BR WFB A 10 / F 202)

[II] "Fantaisies - Sonates - Fugues - Polonaises"
Maude Gratton, harpsichord, clavichorda

rec: Oct 2008, Paris, Chapelle Notre-Dame de Bon-Secours
Mirare - MIR 088 (© 2009) (65'22")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Fantasia in d minor (BR WFB A 22 / F 19); Fantasia in a minor (BR WFB A 26 / F 23); Fugue I in C (BR WFB A 81 / F 31,1); Fugue II in c minor (BR WFB A 82 / F 31,2); Fugue IV in d minor (BR WFB A 84 / F 31,4); Fugue VI in e minor (BR WFB 86 / F 31,6); Polonaise I in C (BR WFB A 27 / F 12,1); Polonaise VII in E (BR WFB A 33 / F 12,7); Polonaise VIII in e minor (BR WFB A 34 / F 12,8)a; Polonaise XI in G (BR WFB A 37 / F 12,11); Sonata in D (BR WFB A 4 / F 3); Sonata in G (BR WFB A 14 / F 7); Johann Wilhelm HÄSSLER (1747-1822): Fantasia in c minor (F nv2)a


Nearly everyone knows the romantic image of the composer: a tormented soul, trying to express himself, misunderstood by his contemporaries, and bound to live and die in poverty. There may be some truth in that, as far as the romantic era is concerned, when composers indeed often expressed themselves and their personal feelings in their compositions. In earlier times music expressed emotion as well, but this was of a more impersonal nature: it was about emotions which every human being could feel now and then. If there is any composer from pre-romantic times who answers the romantic image of a composer it is Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Johann Sebastian's eldest son.

By all accounts he was a difficult character, which was partly due to having been spoilt by his over-protective father. It was only after Johann Sebastian had died that he gained independence. But it seems that he found it hard to position himself in a world in which many things changed. One of the things which was open to change was musical taste. Friedemann's oeuvre reflects the various tastes of his time, but it seems that he didn't feel at home with any of them.

In his cantatas he largely followed in his father's footsteps. In his orchestral works he moves the furthest from the style of the baroque era. But it is his keyboard music which shows the whole array of stylistic features of his time. It is the tragedy of his life that he made use of forms which had become old-fashioned and were no longer appreciated. When he turned to more fashionable forms, his writing was often either too virtuosic to appeal to musical amateurs or too individualistic to be understood by audiences.

There is certainly no lack of interest in Friedemann's keyboard works among modern performers. Over the years I have heard - and partly reviewed - various recordings, but they mostly concentrate on a relatively small number of pieces. The 12 Polonaises - admittedly, these are masterpieces - are among his most-frequently performed works, plus some sonatas, fantasias and fugues. But there is much more which deserves attention. On the Carus disc, the first volume of what may be a complete recording, the Dutch keyboard player Léon Berben presents seven works, of which no less than five are recorded here for the first time.

The programme starts with two pieces which take forms which were out of fashion in Friedemann's days. The overture was a common form in the baroque era. It was the opening movement of orchestral suites and also found its way into keyboard music. Johann Sebastian, for instance, composed an 'overture in French style' for harpsichord, other keyboard works opened with an overture, taking the place of a prelude. With its three sections - slow-fast-slow - Friedemann's Overture in E flat - refers to the French overture of Lully. It is followed by the Concerto in G. The concerto was common in Friedemann's days, but only as an orchestral piece. Concertos for keyboard were something of the past: his father was only one of several composers who transcribed instrumental concertos by his contemporaries for the keyboard. And Johann Sebastian's Italian Concerto was modelled after these concertos.

Friedemann's independent mind and individualistic style come particularly to the fore in the two sonatas. They are full of melodic twists and turns and sudden pauses, and contain some astonishing harmonic progressions. In his liner-notes Peter Wollny interestingly makes a comparison with the music of his father's colleague and friend Jan Dismas Zelenka. He also states that in the Sonata in D Friedemann attempts to link the style of his father with the fashion of his days. This didn't appeal to the music-loving world. "The bad sales of the first printing - which was produced at great expense - indicate that W.F. Bach's endeavor did not satisfy the musical tastes of that time. His contemporaries considered the work to be too discerning and complicated to justify the high production costs."

The Fantasia in e minor (BR WFB A 24) which closes the programme is another remarkable piece which seems to look back at the stylus phantasticus of the North-German organ school of the 17th century, with virtuosic runs, polyphonic episodes and recitativic passages alternating. The Fantasia in d minor (BR WFB A 105) takes the form of an allemande. Wollny suggests it could have been a movement from a larger suite.

Notable is also the Menuet in F. It is in fact a pair of menuets, the second in f minor. The repetition of the first menuet is then followed by three variations, which can be interpreted as a reference to the French habit of writing dances with 'doubles' in keyboard suites.

This programme is given a perfect interpretation by Léon Berben. He is a specialist in keyboard music - in particular from Germany - from the 16th to the 18th century. His technical skills guarantee that the virtuosic character of the fast movements comes off perfectly, but there is no lack of expression in the slow movements either. An essential feature of his interpretation is that the many surprises Friedemann has installed for us come into their own here.

Whereas this disc is probably most suitable for those who are already acquainted with Friedemann's keyboard music and have several recordings in their collection, the disc by the French harpsichordist Maude Gratton is the ideal way to get to know this repertoire. She has selected specimens from every genre in Friedemann's keyboard oeuvre. I have already mentioned the Polonaises which belong to the most frequently-performed and also most impressive and personal part of his keyboard music, whereas the fugues represent a genre which he was very fond of and which connects him most closely with the education he received from his father. The fantasia gives us some insight into the art of improvisation for which he was especially famous. The opening Fantasia in d minor (BR WFB A 22) is a good example, with some strong dissonants. The Fantasia in c minor (F nv2) which Ms Gratton plays in a truly improvisatory manner, is also a fine piece. But it is not by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach; it is in fact written by Johann Wilhelm Hässler.

She has selected two sonatas, one of which is also represented on Léon Berben's disc. The Sonata in G (BR WFB A 14) is particularly notable for its middle movement which is a 'lamento', a highly expressive piece with strong contrasts and sudden shifts of mood, brilliantly exposed by Maude Gratton. Interestingly she also plays two pieces on the clavichord, an instrument whose sensibility is well suited to Friedemann's keyboard music. They are placed in between pieces played at the harpsichord, which is rather unfortunate, as the ear needs some time to adapt to the very soft sound of the clavichord. One is advised to turn down the volume control for the Fantasia in c minor; otherwise the clavichord's sound is heavily distorted.

I am impressed by both discs, but I was surprised by the sound of Berben's. At first I thought something was wrong with my equipment: it sounded like a mono recording. After a while I got used to it, but I find the sound picture too narrow and the recording generally too distant. Maude Gratton's recording reveals more details without being over-analytical.

Even so, these two discs deliver absorbing musical pictures of a brilliant mind.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Léon Berben
Maude Gratton

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