Saturday, June 5, 2010

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach

It's never easy being the eldest son of a genius. Just ask Julian Lennon or Barry Einstein. The very first thing you need to know about Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, even before you know his dates (1710-1784), is that he was Sebastian's favourite and that he didn't seem to have the temperament to live up to his father's expectations. Well, how would you feel if when you were twelve, your dad composed the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier for you? The long and the short of it is that Friedemann never proved as successful as he could have been, having trouble keeping jobs, and he died in poverty, having already sold off his share of Sebastian's inheritance. I think in terms of familiarity he'd rank third among the Bach sons - after Emanuel and Johann Christian but before... uh... Zeppo... But musically, where does he sit? It's hard to say. I mean, any expert will tell you it's hard to say. Sometimes he's definitely a Baroque composer, sometimes a Classical one - within the space of a single composition, indeed. Is this why he's harder to get a handle on than his better-known and more easily characterized brothers? Does his wavering between two styles reflect his personality - honouring his father's legacy while also trying to escape it? To find out, you should see the movie Cry Friedemann, starring Roy Scheider.
So, to the naive Nereffidian ear, what does Friedemann's music sound like? You know what, it sounds like a mix of Baroque and Classical. For every cantata aria that could have been swiped from one of Sebastian's lesser-known works, there's a slightly unsettling Empfindsamkeit keyboard fantasia (see! I know big musicology words!). Most intriguing of all is the first of the 12 Polonaises, which has a certain swing to it and sounds for all the world like it was written by a late-20th-century composer with a love of jazz who decided to write a Baroque pastiche. By and large I find the best of Friedemann's work in the keyboard music, though overall his music can be likened to the proverbial box of chocolates.
If I were to suggest just one album of WF, I would pick two: Maude Gratton on harpsichord (Mirare) and Anthony Spiri on a Steinway (Oehms). Both play a selection of fantasias, sonatas, and fugues, while Gratton also throws in a handful of polonaises.
Listen for yourself: here's an 8tracks mix containing 12 highlights from the albums I've been listening to over the past week.

1 comment:

Nereffid said...

The works featured are:

Fantasia in C minor
Harpsichord concerto in F minor
8 Fugues, F.31
Duet for 2 Flutes, F.57
Fugue in F, F.33
Dies ist der Tag, F.85
12 Polonaises, F.12
Keyboard sonata in G, F.7
Keyboard concerto in E minor, F.43
Flute sonata in A minor, F.52
Keyboard sonata in D, F.3
Adagio and Fugue (Sinfonia) in D minor, F.65

The Presto from the sonata in G reminds me of "Follow the yellow brick road". Hope that hasn't just ruined the piece for you!