Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782)
Keyboard Sonata in B flat, op.5 no.1 [8:43]
Keyboard Sonata in D, op.5 no.2 [14:55]
Keyboard Sonata in G, op.5 no.3 [10:28]
Keyboard Sonata in E flat, op.5 no.4 [11:54]
Keyboard Sonata in E, op.5 no.5 [12:16]
Keyboard Sonata in C minor, op.5 no.6 [15:12]
Susan Alexander-Max (clavichord)
rec. St Lawrence's Church, West Wycombe, England, August 2008. DDD
NAXOS 8.570476 [73:08]
The decision by Naxos to record the six op. 5 sonatas of Johann Christian Bach on the clavichord is a brave one. Even more so than the harpsichord, the clavichord is likely to polarise listeners. In modern parlance its tone might be characterised as 'in-your-face' - neon strip-lighting against the natural daylight of a grand piano.
But one thing the soft action of the clavichord does ensure is a sense of intimacy, which is apt for these almost sensual sonatas. Recording quality here is generally good, despite the fact that the very nature of the mechanics of the clavichord makes its sound rather elusive. Probably for that reason it has been recorded quite closely. At least the church setting coaxes as much resonance out of the instrument as it is willing to give.
Background noise is minimal, except, strangely, in the final Sonata, where there is something very odd going on 'underneath' the recording, as it were. It’s a kind of eerily distorted feedback giving the impression of a neighbour's turned-up television set heard through a wall! Once noticed it is quite distracting, and frankly the producer needs to answer some questions.
Bach published these works in 1766 as Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord or the Fortepiano, Op. 5. These were the very first pieces published in London for the newly emergent piano, and Bach is also credited with the first piano recital in public. According to Susan Alexander-Max's liner-notes, dynamic markings, such as frequent piano and forte, indicate a distinct leaning towards the latter instrument of Bach's title. By this time he was already adopting the new square piano by manufacturers Zumpe as his keyboard instrument of preference. Pianists of the period would nevertheless still often have used a clavichord in the home for composition and practice. That is Alexander-Max's justification for performing these works on the clavichord, a 2006 model based on a 1785 instrument.
Mozart greatly admired Bach's music, and his own early works are clearly influenced by it. In fact, the young Mozart was so taken with Bach's op. 5 that he recomposed nos. 2, 3 and 4 into an early piano concerto, KV.107. The works are generally in three movements, though nos. 1 and 4 are in an old-school two. By this time Bach was well into his cosmopolitan galant period, as these elegant, nuanced works can testify. The opening theme of Sonata no.6 bears a brief but striking resemblance to the famous Russian folksong, "Dark Eyes". By the end of the movement it has morphed into a melancholy Neapolitan-like song of love lost. By this time the bizarre background noise is all too evident.
Alexander-Max's technique is superb on this unforgiving instrument, and she extracts considerable expressiveness from it in the service of Bach's suave, sophisticated music. 74 minutes is a long time to spend listening without a break to the clavichord. In smaller sessions of, say, two sonatas a go, the unique sonorities of this instrument, coupled with the brilliance and imagination of Bach's music, make this an almost irresistible bargain - were it not for the recording quality lapse.
In smaller sessions oftwo sonatas a go, the instrument’s unique sonorities, coupled with the brilliance and imagination of the music, make this an almost irresistible bargain.