We all know the romantic image of the composer: a tormented
soul, trying to express himself, misunderstood by his contemporaries,
and bound to live and die in poverty. There may be some truth
in that, as far as the romantic era is concerned, when composers
indeed often expressed themselves and their personal feelings
in their compositions. In earlier times music expressed emotion
as well, but this was of a more impersonal nature: it was about
emotions which every human being could feel now and then. If
there is any composer from pre-romantic times who answers the
romantic image of a composer it is Wilhelm Friedemann Bach,
Johann Sebastian's eldest son.
By all accounts he was a difficult character, which was partly
due to having been spoilt by his over-protective father. It
was only after Johann Sebastian had died that he gained independence.
But it seems that he found it hard to position himself in a
world in which many things changed. One of the things which
was open to change was musical taste. Friedemann's oeuvre reflects
the various tastes of his time, but it seems that he didn't
feel at home with any of them.
In his cantatas he largely followed in his father's footsteps.
In his orchestral works he moves the furthest from the style
of the baroque era. But it is his keyboard music which shows
the whole array of stylistic features of his time. It is the
tragedy of his life that he made use of forms which had become
old-fashioned and were no longer appreciated. When he turned
to more fashionable forms, his writing was often either too
virtuosic to appeal to musical amateurs or too individualistic
to be understood by audiences.
There is certainly no lack of interest in Friedemann's keyboard
works among modern performers. Over the years I have heard -
and partly reviewed - various recordings, but they mostly concentrate
on a relatively small number of pieces. The 12 Polonaises
- admittedly, these are masterpieces - are among his most-frequently
performed works, plus some sonatas, fantasias and fugues. But
there is much more which deserves attention. On this disc, the
first volume of what may be a complete recording, the Dutch
keyboard player Léon Berben presents seven works, of which no
fewer than five are recorded here for the first time.
The programme starts with two pieces which take forms which
were out of fashion in Friedemann's days. The overture was a
common form in the baroque era. It was the opening movement
of orchestral suites and also found its way into keyboard music.
Johann Sebastian, for instance, composed an 'overture in French
style' for harpsichord; other keyboard works opened with an
overture, taking the place of a prelude. With its three sections
- slow-fast-slow - Friedemann's Overture in E flat -
refers to the French overture of Lully. It is followed by the
Concerto in G. The concerto was common in Friedemann's
days, but only as an orchestral piece. Concertos for keyboard
were something of the past: his father was only one of several
composers who transcribed instrumental concertos by his contemporaries
for the keyboard. And Johann Sebastian's famous Italian Concerto
was modelled after these concertos.
Friedemann's independent mind and individualistic style come
particularly to the fore in the two sonatas. They are full of
melodic twists and turns and sudden pauses, and contain some
astonishing harmonic progressions. In his liner-notes Peter
Wollny interestingly makes a comparison with the music of his
father's colleague and friend Jan Dismas Zelenka. He also states
that in the Sonata in D Friedemann attempts to link the
style of his father with the fashion of his days. This didn't
appeal to the music-loving world. "The bad sales of the
first printing - which was produced at great expense - indicate
that W.F. Bach's endeavor did not satisfy the musical tastes
of that time. His contemporaries considered the work to be too
discerning and complicated to justify the high production costs."
The Fantasia in e minor which closes the programme is
another remarkable piece which seems to look back to the stylus
phantasticus of the North-German organ school of the 17th
century, with virtuosic runs, polyphonic episodes and recitativic
passages alternating. The Fantasia in d minor takes the
form of an allemande. Wollny suggests it could have been a movement
from a larger suite.
Notable is also the Menuet in F. It is in fact a pair
of menuets, the second in f minor. The repetition of the first
menuet is then followed by three variations, which can be interpreted
as a reference to the French habit of writing dances with 'doubles'
in keyboard suites.
This recital is given a perfect interpretation by Léon Berben.
He is a specialist in keyboard music - in particular from Germany
- from the 16th to the 18th century. His technical skills guarantee
that the virtuosic character of the fast movements comes off
perfectly, but there is no lack of expression in the slow movements
either. An essential feature of his interpretation is that the
many surprises Friedemann has installed for us come into their
In short, this disc is an absorbing musical picture of a brilliant
Johan van Veen