Review By Jerry Dubins,Fanfare,January 2009
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710–1784) was Johann Sebastian’s eldest son and the one who followed most closely in his father’s musical footsteps. Renowned as a distinguished organist, Wilhelm was exposed to the new fashions taking hold in music at the time—stil galant and Empfindsamer stil, and in Dresden, to the “corrupting” influence of opera, from which no good could come to a pure and pious Lutheran boy. Yet he managed to resist temptation by fleeing the big, bad, liberal city and taking up a post as organist at the Liebfrauenkirche in Halle, the center of Pietism, where “music was suffered only as a means of ‘inspiring and refreshing the congregation in worship,’” a warning stipulated in his
Perhaps Wilhelm thought Halle would be his salvation from those theological freethinkers at the Dresden court, but it was too late; he had tasted of the forbidden fruit. In contrast to his feisty father, however, Wilhelm was not as strong-willed or as keen for confrontation. Instead, he internalized his frustrations and suffered in silence until, in 1764, he’d finally had enough. He walked out on his job at the Liebfrauenkirche with only the clothes on his back and with no prospects in sight. When he died 20 years later, he left a wife and daughter penniless and dependent for support on the kindness of charity.
Glyn Pursglove of MusicWeb International, in his review of Volume 1 of this series [8.557966], provides an insightful analysis of how and why W. F. Bach came to such a sad end. Basically, Pursglove paints Wilhelm as the victim of elder-son syndrome—the boy on whom the father pins his highest expectations for success, expectations the boy tries mightily to fulfill but not for lack of effort can’t. The boy grows to manhood and spends his life trying to fill the shoes of the father he looked up to and idolized; and when he finally realizes it’s not to be, he succumbs to the pressure and sinks into a state of self-abnegation. Consciously or not, Johann Sebastian probably did expect and hope for more from his eldest son than Wilhelm was capable of; and consciously or not, Wilhelm probably did carry the burden of believing he had disappointed his father. As Pursglove puts it, “Wilhelm doubtless wanted to do more than merely imitate his father’s music. At times he struck off in new directions, doing things his father would never have done and would almost certainly have disapproved of; at other times he wrote music which might indeed have been mistaken for work by his father.”
That is clearly evident from the pieces on this disc, some so similar in musical vocabulary to that of J. S. Bach one would be hard-pressed to discern the difference; others having almost a Scarlatti-like character. Yet it’s as if each foray into new territory is reversed by a retreat back to safer ground.
It’s likely that what remains of Wilhelm’s output is but the tip of a much larger iceberg, a supposition based on the fact that most of it was circulated in unpublished manuscripts. What we have, at least on record, are almost exclusively works for organ and keyboard. There are a few concertos for harpsichord and orchestra and a handful of flute duets and trio sonatas that have been recorded. But with only a few exceptions, recordings of the symphonies, masses, and numerous sacred cantatas have not been forthcoming.
The numbering system in common use for Wilhelm’s works was published in 1913 by Martin Falck, hence the “Fk” designators. The current CD, “Keyboard Works 2, Fantasias and Fugues,” is made up of individual, standalone pieces that are not conjoined as are J. S. Bach’s fantasias and fugues. Julia Brown, however, has programmed her recital in a way that cleverly suggests such conjoining by following each fantasia with two fugues that are either all in the same key, or in which the fantasia is in a closely related key to the same-keyed two fugues that follow it. Only the last two tracks break the pattern by presenting two fantasias in a row.
Two of the fantasias—the one in C Minor, Fk 15, at 19 minutes, and the E Minor, Fk 21, at 10 minutes—are substantial works. All of the other pieces are significantly shorter, but none is without interest. As alluded to earlier, some of them will give you pause as to who composed them. The huge and magnificent C-Minor Fantasia that opens the disc could easily have been written by J. S. Bach. Much of it resembles one of the elder Bach’s toccatas, and one section in particular beginning at 3:35 could have been lifted right out of J. S.’s Chromatic Fantasy.
In contrast, W. F.’s fugue subjects and his treatment of them sound less like J. S. than they do Couperin. Then there are passages in the A-Minor Fantasia that would not be out of place in a Scarlatti sonata.
Rio de Janeiro-born Julia Brown is both a noted harpsichordist and organist. This is my first encounter with her, but I can tell you she is wonderful. Equally wonderful is the sound of her Richard Kingston harpsichord. This is a most welcome addition to the Naxos catalog, and I highly recommend it.