Thursday 9 May 2013

Julia Brown makes an excellent case for the keyboard sonatas of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach on a new release from Naxos

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-1784) known as ‘the Halle Bach’ was born in Weimar, the eldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach by his first wife Maria Barbara. The death of his mother in 1720 is thought by some to have been the cause of his later instability and failure to achieve his potential. His first studies were at the Lateinschule, Cöthen. In 1720 Johann Sebastian began a Clavier-Buchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach that was to be used for Bach’s other children and pupils as well. Given that the Clavier-Buchlein soon abandons any music that could be considered for beginners, there is no doubt that Wilhelm Friedemann made quick progress.

When the Bach family moved to Leipzig in 1723, Wilhelm Friedemann was enrolled in the Thomasschule. Later Wilhelm Friedemann was sent to Merseburg to study the violin with J G Graun. After his graduation from the Thomasschule, Wilhelm Friedemann attended the University of Leipzig studying mathematics, philosophy and law. It is obvious that he was an outstanding scholar.

In 1733 he was appointed to the post of organist at the Dresden Sophienkirche. As this appointment was part time he was able, in addition to further study of mathematics, to give time to composition. In 1746 he became organist at the Liebfrauenkirche in Halle. It was here that his first cantata Wer mich liebet was performed. However, Wilhelm Friedemann was unable to settle in Halle and he spent much time seeking another post. The court at Darmstadt offered him the post of Kapellmeister but he seemed unable to make a decision, eventually annoying the Darmstadt authorities. He fell out with the church authorities in Halle but, despite this, he remained there until 1770, earning his living mainly as a teacher. On his move to Brunswick he spent his time giving organ recitals, composing and seeking permanent employment.

By 1774 he was in Berlin where he gained a reputation as an organ virtuoso gaining support from Princess Anna Amalia, sister of Frederick the Great. His inability to stick to any employment and his unfortunate attitude to others increasingly isolated the ageing Wilhelm Friedemann, making his last years ones of poverty and ill-health. When he died his widow and one surviving daughter were left in poverty, the proceeds of a Berlin performance of Handel’s Messiah in 1785 being donated to them.

His compositions include over fifty keyboard works, many chamber works, eight symphonies, keyboard concertos, liturgical works and numerous cantatas.

It is the works for keyboard that Naxos are recording in a series that has featured Robert Hill (volume one) and Julia Brown (volumes two and three).

The fourth volume in the series again features Julia Brown with fellow harpsichordist Barbara Baird joining her for the sonata for two harpsichords. Brown plays a harpsichord built by Richard Kingston (1986) and Barbara Baird plays a copy of a harpsichord by Michael Mietke (c.1710) built by Keith Hill .


Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s Sonata (Concerto) for Two Harpsichords in F major F.10/BR A12 was composed during his Dresden period. It opens with the terrific sound of the two harpsichords in a nicely paced Allegro ma moderato, in a really attractive theme. These two players provide some lovely blended sounds that nevertheless allow the intricate details to emerge. There is a lyrical, flowing andante, with the two harpsichords weaving around each other in some fine playing. It is only in the presto that the title concerto can reasonably be understood, with a striking opening full of panache and style, where one harpsichord seems to provide the orchestral part, with the characteristics of a baroque concerto. Julia Brown and Barbara Baird, who are obviously well used to playing together, perform this work with such flair and obvious enjoyment.

Julia Brown continues with the Sonata in C major F.1b/BR A2a, a work that exists in two versions, the later one substituting the short grave with two Minuets. In this earlier version, Brown’s playing in the allegro has so much freedom and flair, avoiding any hint of the routine. In this sparkling allegro Wilhelm Friedemann always provides interest with never a dull bar and with some lovely chromatic shifts. The short grave acts as a link between the allegro and final vivace that has a terrific theme leading to some attractive development, finely played by Brown who brings some lovely sounds from her instrument. I like the way she gives little pauses to point up passages. This is a thoroughly enjoyable sonata played with style and flair by Julia Brown.

The Sonata in F major F.202/BR A10 is thought to be an early work, influenced by his father’s Italian Concerto.  There is a bright and airy opening to the allegro, played with such style that shows this music in such an attractive light. Julia Brown draws some lovely textures from her harpsichord. The Siciliana, drawn from Wilhelm Friedemann’s earlier Flute Sonata in E minor, is a great little movement that again reminds one of his father. The opening material of the concluding Presto has a degree of naivety, however, it does develop into something much more with some attractive moments made the most of by Brown.

Despite being the earliest of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s works, the Sonata in D major F.3/BR A4 has an individual sound with, in the Un poco allegro some lovely intricate textures caught well by Julia Brown.  This is by far the longest sonata on this disc and is quite complex in its writing. The long adagio, lasting over ten minutes, is a lovely movement, played with detail and care, Julia Brown carefully varying the sounds she draws from her instrument. The attractive bouncing vivace, full of life, ends this particularly attractive sonata, brilliantly played by Julia Brown.

It is not just the better known Sonata (Concerto) for Two Harpsichords that makes this disc worthwhile. Julia Brown makes an excellent case for the other sonatas on this attractive new release. The recording made in the Beall Concert Hall of the University of Oregen is absolutely first rate.

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