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
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
second interpolates a middle Andante
after an Allegretto
opening, the third has two Allegro
movements, the fourth and fifth
followed by a faster Presto
respectively, and the sixth returns to the central
slow-movement design, but with a first movement
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
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
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
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)
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