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.
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?!