Johann Christoph Friedrich BACH (1732-1795)
The Sons of Bach - Volume III
Sinfonia á 8 in G major (BR C23/Wf1/15) [24.54]; “Concerto Grosso” in E flat major (Wf II/5) [29.25]; Sinfonia a 10 in Bb (Wf I/20) [22.54]
Christine Schornsheim (fortepiano)
Freiburger Barockorchester/ Gottfried von der Goltz
rec. 7-9 March 2009, Paulus-Saal, Freiburg. DDD
CARUS 83.306 [77.35] 

JCF has gone down in musical history as the least talented or least original of the great Bach’s composer-sons.

He was born before Johann Christian and is the only one “who continued to compose into the period of the Viennese classics. The works on this CD were all composed after the death of Mozart”, (booklet essay by Ulrich Leisinger); rather remarkable really.

What especially struck me was that this CD consists of only three works; in other words they are not of the length of ‘Sinfonias’ of the mid-century but are more fully developed and extended in the style of Mozart and Haydn and as precursors to early Beethoven.

Known as “The Bückeburg Bach”, JCF composed at the court of Schäumberg-Lippe in that town all of his life. The town orchestra developed into one of the very best in Europe and JCF wrote much for it. The 1780s saw him undergoing various personal and creative crises. However from about 1792 he bounced out of these due to the encouragement of his new boss, as it were, the young Princess Juliane for whom, in the last years of his life he was amazingly prolific.

Taking them in order as on the CD we begin with the Sinfonia in G major. One must remember that the great Haydn was writing his London Symphonies at this time. This four-movement work is not unoriginal and not uninfluenced by Haydn. In fact whilst listening I was wondering why a piece like this or any other of the many Sinfonias JCF composed are not better known. The booklet notes tell us that the manuscripts from the court were moved for safe-keeping from Berlin in the war and have not yet materialised. This work is only known through a 1920s copy. It is in four movements with a portentous G minor introduction which Haydn would have been proud of, followed by a lively Sonata-Allegro in the major key. Interestingly it ends in D as it leads neatly into the 3/4 time Romanza in rondo form. This is of equal length to the first movement and amongst several of its charming touches is a passage with pizzicato strings under oboes in thirds and a section for muted strings. The Minuet and Trio exemplifies the fact that the wind, especially the horns and oboes are as important as the strings, pretty well. In the trio section they have a moment in the sunlight all to themselves. The Rondo finale is witty and energetic and again horns feature strongly; a truly excellent piece of work.

JCF would certainly have been aware of Mozart’s piano concertos yet his own work is entitled ‘Concerto Grosso’ harking back to a more baroque format and to a nomenclature more associated with his father. There is even a figured bass part but its style is certainly quite up-to-date for JCF’s times. Although he stayed almost his entire life - over forty years anyway - in one place his music and especially this piece show clear influences from the world around him. Not the least of these links with his late brother CPE who had died in 1788. There is also a touch of his more Italianate younger brother JC who had died six years before that. This is a three movement work. The quite lengthy opening movement is reminiscent of CPE with its driving rhythms and wide-leaping melodies especially in the strings. A little eccentric, after the opening ritornello, is the entry of the piano with an unrelated and dreamy andante before the movement pursues its sonata-form progress. The second movement Siciliano is also marked Romanza and is in the relative minor. It is quite melancholy but has the grace and elegance of JC. It features a delightful passage between the soloist and the oboe. The finale is again lively and witty with some quite amusing touches. The pianoforte is a mellow instrument which is a copy of an early 18th century Viennese one. The recording balances it beautifully and naturally against the quite substantial orchestra. Christine Schornsheim plays with grace and beautifully-shaped phrasing to capture the work’s changing moods. The Freiburg orchestra likewise accompany with much sensitivity and stylistic understanding.

According to the booklet essay the B flat Symphony á 10 is JCF’s “best-known” symphony although for me it is, marginally, the least interesting work here. When I played it in part to my musician friend Colin down the road he proclaimed that it must be “one of Haydn’s lesser-known London Symphonies” although neither of us, and here I might stand corrected, could remember any performances when the harpsichord was used as continuo in the Master’s last works. However it is the wonderful use of woodwind that seems so Haydnesque and especially in the use of clarinets instead of oboes; this time there are no horns. The minuet and trio has some particularly delightful passages. The opening movement has a slow introduction and the finale is a rather earnest rondo.

As a centre-fold in the booklet there is an attractive black and white double spread of the Freiburg Barockorchestra holding their instruments. There is a summary below - which is most welcome - identifying the maker and date of each.

I was not expecting this music to be especially interesting. Instead I have found delight and surprise, not so much at the playing - I always knew that the Freiburg would offer a big commitment to the music - but at JCF’s material which certainly catches and holds the attention. His ideas are lively and clearly sprung from a fresh and fecund musical imagination. This disc will add considerably to your musical knowledge and enjoyment.

Gary Higginson