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Wilhelm Friedemann BACH (1710-1784)
Keyboard Works - 2
Fantasia in c minor (Fk 15; BR A 18) [18:58]
Fugue No 1 in C (Fk 31,1; BR A 81) [01:48]
Fugue No 2 in c minor (Fk 31,2; BR A 82) [02:47]
Fantasia in e minor (Fk 21; BR A 24) [10:03]
Fugue No 3 in D (Fk 31,3; BR A 83) [01:14]
Fugue No 4 in d minor (Fk 31,4; BR A 84) [01:15]
Fantasia in d minor (Fk 19; BR A 22) [07:04]
Fugue No 5 in E flat (Fk 31,5; BR A 85) [03:41]
Fugue No 6 in e minor (Fk 31,6; BR A 86) [03:19]
Fantasia in c minor (Fk nv2) [07:39]
Fugue No 7 in B flat (Fk 31,7; BR A 87) [01:36]
Fugue No 8 in f minor (Fk 31,8; BR A 88) [05:46]
Fantasia in a minor (Fk 23; BR A 26) [04:31]
Fantasia in d minor (Fk 18; BR A 21) [03:26]
Julia Brown (harpsichord)
rec. 20-21 September 2007, AGR Performing Arts Center, Eugene, Oregon, USA. DDD
NAXOS 8.570530 [74:07] 

 

Experience Classicsonline


By all accounts Wilhelm Friedemann Bach had a difficult character. It is food for a psychologist to figure out what made him the personality he was, but it is very likely it was the result of being the favourite of his father. Reinhard Goebel, former leader of the disbanded ensemble Musica antiqua Köln, may be right when he writes that "he could probably have benefited from an occasional kick up the backside". Fact is that he never got a job which gave him or his employers any real satisfaction. Towards the end of his life he tried to earn a living as a freelance organist, giving concerts in Germany. But even though he was generally considered the greatest organist alive the heyday of the organ had gone. In 1784 he died in Berlin, a poor and embittered man.
 

It is tempting to see Friedemann's character reflected in his music. Whereas he composed a number of church cantatas which are stylistically very close to his father's, in his instrumental works and his compositions for keyboard he seems to wander forth and back between the style of the baroque era and the styles which were fashionable in his own time. His character and his music have given Robert Hill reasons to label him as "the first Romantic". In the programme notes of his recording of the 12 Polonaises - Volume 1 of this Naxos series - he writes: "From his unhappy biography to his perhaps deserved reputation as the ungrateful recipient of an over-involved father's attention, the artist Wilhelm Friedemann Bach presents us with a mix that by most definitions would qualify as 'Romantic': his individualism, his use of superb compositional technique in the service of poetic poignancy, the way he set up technical barriers for the keyboardist to overcome, his anticipation of harmonic devices central to nineteenth-century tonal language, all these are marks of a genius who was unable to fit into the career paths available in his time". 

It is probably these features which resulted in almost none of his keyboard works being printed during his lifetime. Even while still alive his compositions were widely disseminated in manuscript and their authenticity can't always be established. In the programme on this disc, for instance, the Fantasia in c minor (Fk nv2), has also been attributed to Johann Wilhelm Hässler (1747-1822), another organ virtuoso who travelled through Germany to give concerts. This, by the way, also puts the unique character of Friedemann's compositions into some perspective. The features of his oeuvre partly reflect the time in which he lived, where old and new met, conflicted, and sometimes merged. 

The music on this disc reflects this. The eight fugues are written for keyboard without pedal, but are often played on the organ. There is no objection to this: there is an authorised copy of these fugues with a dedicatory letter to Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia, sister of Frederick the Great. She was an avid player of the organ: Friedemann's brother Carl Philipp Emanuel wrote his organ sonatas for her. But character-wise they are rather chamber music. The subjects are very peculiar and often surprising. A feature of these fugues is that the tonalities are clearly characterised, much in accordance with the definitions by Johann Mattheson. As Julia Brown writes: "The variety of affects used and the highly individualized subjects make them sound more like character pieces". As Friedemann was famous for his improvisations I like the way Julia Brown plays them, with subtle rubato and slight variety in the tempo. They really sound as if they are improvised which makes this interpretation truly captivating. 

The fugues are interspersed with a number of Fantasias. In fact, it is the other way round: as the fantasias are much longer they are interspersed with the fugues. These fantasias also reflect the conflict between old and new. The longest contain a large number of contrasting sections. It is a shame the track-list doesn't specify them. Just to give one example, the Fantasia in e minor (Fk 21/BR A 24) has no less than 16 character indications: furioso, recitativ, furioso, andantino, grave, prestissimo, andantino, recitativ, andantino, recitativ, andantino, recitativ, andante (prestissimo), grave, largo, furioso. This sums up pretty well how modern this fantasia is, very much in line with the aesthetics of the Empfindsamkeit. But in the Fantasia in d minor (Fk 19/BR A 22), for instance, Johann Sebastian shows up: it begins with a toccata-like section which is followed by a fugal section - just like some of Bach's harpsichord toccatas. Several fantasias contain many scales and arpeggios and there are sometimes surprising harmonic progressions. 

In her performances Julia Brown aims to pointing up the contrasts in these Fantasias. She takes her time in the slow sections, some of which are played really slow; also she isn't afraid of breathing spaces between phrases or sections. The fast sections could have been taken a bit faster, as the Fantasias take considerably more time here than in other recordings. Having said that Julia Brown is well able to keep the listener's attention, even in the first Fantasia on the programme which lasts almost 19 minutes. 

As I have said, the fugues are often played on the organ. Another option would be for the fugues and the fantasias to be played on the clavichord. Its dynamic possibilities are very appropriate to underline the contrasts within the fantasias. But the choice of the harpsichord is plausible as the date of composition of most pieces is not known, and the harpsichord was very much in use until Friedemann's death in 1784. 

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach's keyboard music never fails to fascinate and the unmistakable qualities of his oeuvre come well to the fore in Julia Brown's fine interpretations. 

N.B. The tracklist only gives the numbers of the out-of-date catalogue by Martin Falck (1913). As far as possible I have added the numbers in the new catalogue, Bach Repertorium (BR), being prepared by Peter Wollny.

Johan van Veen

 


 


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