Wilhelm Friedemann BACH (1710-1784)
12 Polonaises for Harpsichord, Falck 12 [51:38]
Fantasia, Falck 19 [5:14]
Sonata in E flat major, Falck 5 [10:32]
Siegbert Rampe (harpsichord, tangent piano)
rec. Marienmünster Abbey, Marienmünster, July 2009. DDD

The smiling, genial face of W.F. Bach that looks out from the cover of this CD belies the complex nature of the man and his music.

The eldest and most favoured of J.S. Bach’s sons, W.F. is known to musical history as one of the great might-have-beens. An exceptionally gifted organist and violinist, the young Wilhelm Friedemann was taught by both his father and Johann Gottlieb Graun. Yet, having secured lucrative posts in Dresden and Halle, he never quite lived up to expectations - composing little and gaining a reputation more as a teacher, organ recitalist and all-round difficult customer.

The 12 polonaises date from 1765-1770 after he had quit his job as director of music in Halle. They are recorded here for the first time. Far from being a set of mannered dance miniatures, they are startlingly complex and expressive works with a strong Sturm und Drang flavour. Cast in the major and minor keys of C, D, E flat, E, F and G, each polonaise has its own individual character, ranging from the technical brilliance of No. 3 (track 3) to the darkly dramatic and almost filmic nature of the final G minor movement (track 12). Take time to listen to the eighth polonaise in E minor (track 8), with its rough, plucky rhythms and exotic, eastern European feel.

Bach’s short Fantasia in D minor also packs a weighty punch. In just over five minutes, it traverses a wide range of emotions within a complex fugal structure. Equally fascinating is the short Sonata in E flat major, which also receives its recording debut. Unlike the Polonaises and Fantasia, the Sonata appeals because of its simplicity. Its easy charm and wit - listen out for the sequence of interrupted cadences in the final Presto - perhaps better reflect the kindly nature of the man in the portrait on the front cover. The only disappointment is soloist Siegbert Rampe’s decision to play the sonata on a tangent piano - a hybrid clavichord/fortepiano. Briefly popular in the German-speaking lands in the late eighteenth century, the instrument just sounds odd to modern ears, which yearn for the sonata to be played on either one or the other.

John-Pierre Joyce