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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782)
The Complete Symphonies

CD 1: Symphonies op.3 Nos.1-6
CD 2: Symphonies op.6 Nos.1-6
CD 3: Symphonies op.8 (disc includes two alternative versions of complete symphonies)
CD 4: Symphonies op.9
CD 5: Symphonies op.18
The Hanover Band/Anthony Halstead
Recorded London, 1994 (CD 1 and CD 2), 1995 (CD 3), 1996 (CD 4), 2000 (CD 5) DDD
CPO 999 896-2 [5 hrs 9 mins 58 secs]
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Ploughing through around thirty symphonies may seem a daunting, if not wearisome, assignment. I thought it might be so, but in the event I found myself returning to a symphony or movement for a second, or even third, time out of sheer pleasure.

In some cases, for example in the fourth disc of the op. 9 works, you will be listening to two of the symphonies twice anyway because alternative orchestrations are supplied (one from a contemporary publication and another original and richer one that includes clarinets). This is one of the features that invests the complete set with scholarly importance. Quality scholarship is indeed vital for, as Ernest Warburton says in his extensive notes, "there are more spurious symphonies attributed to Johann Christian Bach than authentic". Fortunately, the German label CPO and the Hanover Band have the services of Warburton, probably the world's leading J.C. Bach scholar, at their disposal. It is just as well for there are complex issues to be resolved and decisions to be made. Judging a symphony inauthentic is one thing, but there is the problem of hybrids. For example a work may be genuine except for one movement as in the case of op. 6, no. 1 where an 18th century publisher has inserted a minuet movement judged by Warburton to be inauthentic. This is included as a filler in the disc of the op. 8 set, "out of curiosity". The encouraging thing is that the movement is manifestly an inferior piece of work. The authentic three movement version appears separately with the op.6 set on disc 2.

This box of attributable symphonies is a package of discs which have appeared separately over the last few years and is a milestone in the Hanover Band's magnificent undertaking to record J.C. Bach's complete orchestral works under Anthony Halstead. If you want to go in for a rigorous delayed gratification exercise then you could wait until next year and purchase the results of the whole grand enterprise in one huge box – so I understand.

If only there were these kinds of recordings around when I was a student. For me, J.C. Bach was a text book figure, whose claim to fame, apart from being a son of the great Johann Sebastian, was as a significant influence on Mozart. The so-called early classical symphony was not taken seriously in its own right, and Johann Christian, like many other symphonists, inhabited a twilight zone somewhere between the baroque and the later 18th century classical period; the era of masterpieces by Mozart and Haydn. Another text book implication was that when these symphonies were written, which was around the time of Haydn and Mozart's early efforts (the 1760s and 1770s), sonata form was pretty well established. The boxed set shows this to be untrue. Bach employs a huge variety of approaches to first movement structure. If we were to describe these in sonata form terms we would have to say there were some that have no development section, some that do not recapitulate the main theme in the final tonic section, some that redevelop first and second subjects in the recapitulation and so on. So these are no formulaic churnings and it is one of the things that makes for rich listening. Also, within Bach’s beautifully crafted gallant style there is often high contrast between sections and movements. His contemporary and friend, Dr Charles Burney, much admired this quality which he said many composers lacked. Bach, says Burney, was able to follow vigorous passages with music that was exceptional in being "slow and soothing".

Bach settled in London in 1762, remaining for twenty years until his death. Burney, in his famous account of travels on the continent in 1770 proudly refers to a private after-dinner concert in Milan where, "they executed several of our Bach's symphonies". That was in July. When in Naples in November he says, "I find in Italy that … the overtures of Bach … are in great request, and very justly so as I have heard nothing equal to them of the kind since I arrived on the continent". The word "overture", incidentally, was interchangeable with that of "symphony" in those days. The remarks illustrate just how admired Johan Christian was throughout Europe. Ernest Warburton in his biographical note for the discs declares him, "of the Bach family … certainly in the eighteenth century the most famous". On the other hand the New Grove Dictionary entry on elder half brother Carl Philipp Emanuel asserts that Carl is, "The most famous of the Bach sons". The latter reference is presumably in respect of posthumous reputation. Whatever, it helps to show what a combination of genes and privileged education can do - a positive synthesis of nature and nurture. Johann Christian was taught first by a towering genius - his father - then by his "most famous brother". The results are here to be heard and the Hanover Band must be credited with aiding a major reappraisal of J.C. Bach’s work.

One of the problems with his symphonic reputation is that Bach was not seeking to expand the symphonic form in the way that Haydn and Mozart were beginning to do. There is more than a hint of it though in three of the more fascinating works. These are in the later op. 18 set and are for double orchestra. Strings and wind are split antiphonally and Bach fully exploits this, employing his considerable skills as an orchestrator. The recording could have exploited this more with greater stereo separation. The winds are especially subtly dealt with by Bach - a particular characteristic of his brother. These works are more expansive than the others and that is reflected in their greater length. When I got to op 18 no.6 I was struck by the dramatic effect of the music - especially the exploited wind sounds and a tremendous sense of dramatic progression. It sounded operatic with even an anticipation of Rossini. On referring back to the notes I saw that Bach had pinched music from his opera Amadis but that there might have been some rearranging by another hand on publication. This is why Warburton's notes are so important.

There are other symphonies where Bach has lifted from his operas, an acceptable practice at the time. Maybe one day someone will do for the operas what the Hanover Band is doing for the orchestral works. The latter could not be in safer hands. Halstead ensures meticulous and committed playing from the Band. Just occasionally there may be a hint of sight-reading about the playing, usually in more rapid passages, but what matters is that the players always carry off the music with a feeling of joyful commitment - no mean feat over well over five hours of music. On the whole, I thought the playing on the final disc finer than that of some of the earlier ones which were recorded up to six years earlier. All were recorded at Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, and the sound is excellent.

Finally, just a light footnote on the Mozart influence. If you get the discs, listen to the second movement of op. 8 no. 2. Isn’t that Papageno?!

John Leeman


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