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Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782)
Sonata in G Op.17 No.1 [10:12]
Sonata in C minor Op.17 No.2 [11:04]
Sonata in E flat Op.17 No.3 [10:03]
Sonata in G Op.17 No.4 [6:34]
Sonata in A Op.17 No.5 [7:55]
Sonata in B flat Op.17 No.6 [13:29]
Bart van Oort (fortepiano)
rec. 25 June, 30 September 2013 Capuchin Monastery, Velp, The Netherlands

In terms of pure output alone, Johann Sebastian Bach would seem to overshadow the achievements of his four nonetheless immensely-talented sons. However, they all played an equally decisive role in the history of music during the 18th century. Johann Christian, the youngest, is arguably one of the more crucial composers of his day. His move to Italy in 1755 where he studied with Padre Martini in Bologna, occasioned an evident change in style. Under the name ‘galant’ – with the emphasis on simplicity, immediacy of appeal and elegance, in lieu of the earlier Baroque’s dignified seriousness and impressive grandeur – this looked forward to the soon-to-emerge Classical period.

J.C. Bach was the first to champion the fortepiano in concert, and by the time he came to write his Six Sonatas Op.17, the instrument was well on its way to dominance. He was often referred to as the ‘London’, or the ‘English’ Bach’, due to the time spent living in city from 1762 onwards. ‘Fortepiano’ denotes the early version of the piano, from its invention by the Italian instrument-maker Cristofori around 1700 up to the early 19th century. It was the instrument for which Haydn, Mozart and the early Beethoven wrote their piano music. Starting in Beethoven’s time, the fortepiano began a period of steady evolution, culminating in the late 19th century with the modern grand piano. The earlier fortepiano then became obsolete and was absent from the musical scene for many decades.

The present CD is the second instalment by Dutch fortepianist, Bart van Oort. The previous issue, on the same label (94634), presented the earlier set of Six Sonatas Op. 5. Mozart was, in fact, one of J.C. Bach’s admirers, and it is highly likely that some of the works recorded here were played to the young prodigy when he visited London in the 1760s. Given this influence, it comes as little surprise that the present six sonatas, perfect examples of the ‘galant’ style – with its wit, charm, brilliance and good humour – look towards the earlier sonatas of the Salzburg composer. I say this while noting that they do not possess quite the same insight or unique depth of expression that Mozart could muster.

One obvious difference is that, whereas all Mozart’s piano sonatas – with the exception of the somewhat spurious K 547a in F – are fully-fledged three-movement works, in J.C. Bach’s Op. 17 set, all but the second and sixth have just two movements. This would seem more an outcome of experimentation rather than simple omission – for example, the second movement of the first in the set is a Minuetto con Variatione, the second interpolates a middle Andante after an Allegretto opening, the third has two Allegro movements, the fourth and fifth have Allegros followed by a faster Presto and Prestissimo respectively, and the sixth returns to the central Andante slow-movement design, but with a first movement Allegro and Prestissimo finale.

The first sonata, in G major, opens with a declamatory theme, contrasted with a more lyrical melody, showing extensive use of an Alberti-bass accompaniment, so frequently encountered in the music of Haydn and Mozart. The ensuing Minuet serves as a theme for a set of variations which very much confirm that J.C. Bach was, like his father and older brothers, something of a keyboard virtuoso as well as a composer. Altogether, it’s a cheerful work as would be expected from something written in this key in the 18th century – a companion here would be Haydn’s three-movement Sonata in G major, Hob.XVI:27.

The second sonata, in C minor, could not be more different from the first, not only because it’s a large-scale three-movement work, with each one in sonata form. It also shares all the drama and pathos of those later works in the same key by Haydn (Hob.XVI:20), Mozart (K 457), and Beethoven (Op. 10 No. 1) and, the later Pathétique, and his final essay in the form, Op. 111. The middle movement evokes an operatic duet, while the finale – in 12/8 time – is a breathless moto perpetuo, which brings to mind the similar movement from Schubert’s C minor Sonata, D958.

The third sonata, in E flat major, has none of the epic qualities of its predecessor, with its two cheerful and sunny movements, and the fourth returns to the key of the first, although it shows a somewhat different character, and where, as in the next sonata, the finale has echoes of Scarlatti about it, with its often virtuosic style.

According to the sleeve-note, in the 18th century, the key of A major was often used to denote innocent love, and trust in God. The opening movement of the fifth sonata would certainly seem to confirm this, as well as making some significant technical challenges on the way.

The final sonata of the set, in B flat major, reverts to the three-movement design, where each one is on a grand scale, with consequent greater demands made on the performer. The opening Allegro, for example, starts in lyrical fashion, but there soon appear elements of symphonic, concerto-like writing. After an Andante with its chain of thirds in the right hand, the final 12/8 Prestissimo not only rounds the sonata off with a technical tour de force, where both hands fully explore the fullest range of the instrument, but also brings the Op. 17 Sonatas to an end in a manner of which his revered father would very much have approved.

A modern instrument by Chris Maene (Ruiselede, 2000) after Walter (c.1795) is used.

With excellent sleeve-notes, van Oort’s consummate technique and expressive interpretative qualities and a fine recording which captures every nuance, this further investigation of the composer’s keyboard music is well worth getting to know.

As a transitionary figure, Johann Christian Bach isn’t quite the finished product, with Haydn and Mozart more than just waiting in the wings. This bargain-priced CD could still prove hard to resist, especially if you’re an aficionado of prototype piano music.
Philip R Buttall