Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782)
Symphonies: Op. 6 No. 1 in G [7:55]; Op. 6 No. 2 in D [7:58]; Op. 6 No. 3 in E flat [6:49]; Op. 6 No. 4 in B flat [6:02]; Op. 6 No. 5 in Eb [7:44]; Op. 6 No. 6 in G minor [9:59]; Op. 18 No. 1 in E flat [11:17]; Op. 18 No. 2 in Bb [8:40]; Op. 18 No. 3 in D [11:49]; Op. 18 No. 4 in D [10:01]; Op. 18 No. 5 in E [15:14]; Op. 18 No. 6 in D [8:40]; Op. 9 No. 1 in B flat [9:07]; Op. 9 No. 2 in Eb [12:04]; Op. 9 No. 3 in B flat [4:29]; Overture in D La Calamità [4:38]
Netherlands Chamber Orchestra/David Zinman
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802065 [74:44 + 70:55]
Many people’s reaction to the name J.C. Bach is, or at least used to be, one of “charming, but little more”. I wonder whether this reaction would have been the same if it were not for the implied comparison with the music of his father. If instead the comparison were to be with his contemporaries, even with the young Mozart or the Haydn of this period, I suspect that the verdict would have been much more favourable. The works on this disc are certainly full of charm, but there is also a solid musical imagination behind them, as well as the compositional technique you would expect from a member of this distinguished family. They may not reach the heights of Mozart or Haydn’s final works in this genre but they do have a character of their own which makes them in every way comparable in stature with the earlier works of those composers.
These two well filled discs give the whole of three published sets of Symphonies. Not the whole of his Symphonies - that would need at least twice as many discs - but more than enough to show the scale and variety of his achievement. Only one is in a minor key throughout - Op. 6 No. 6 in G minor. It was published in 1770, three years before Mozart’s Symphony K183 and just after Haydn’s Symphony No 39, both in the same key. It has some similarities with the restless energy of those works, especially in its last movement, but its main glory is the slow movement, an Andante più tosto adagio for strings alone. This has a character that goes far beyond charm but is quite different to the comparable movements in Mozart’s or Haydn’s works. Listening to these Symphonies in succession - as I would hope normally only a reviewer might do, it quickly becomes apparent that even given such technical hurdles as a predominance of major keys, in particular of D and B flat major, and of three movement structures, the composer manages to produce a wide variety of character for both individual movements and for entire works. This is especially a feature of the Op. 18 set, three of which are written for double orchestra. Two groups of string players are supplemented by oboes and horns and by flutes respectively, giving additional opportunities for changes of texture of which the composer takes great advantage. These are an especial delight, with the slow movements as usual being especially characterful.
The performances and recordings on these discs are obviously of their period, but unless you insist on period instruments in the most up to date recordings you are unlikely to be disappointed with the results. They are fully comparable with recordings of similar works at that period by, say, the English Chamber Orchestra or the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, and Zinman keeps a good balance between grace and forcefulness. For listeners wanting a good sample of J.C. Bach’s style these discs would make a good choice. David Threasher in his helpful notes reminds us that Mozart wrote to his father in 1782 “I suppose you have heard that the English Bach is dead? What a loss to the musical world!”. These discs make it clear how right Mozart was in that judgement. There is much enjoyment to be had here; charm certainly, but much more than that.
Much enjoyment to be had here; charm certainly, but much more than that.