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Dip Your Ears, No. 211 (Wilhelm Friedemann Done Right)

available at Amazon
W.F.Bach, Harpsichord Concertos & Symphonies,
M.Gratton / Il Convito

Seniormost Junior Bach

One of the choices for Best Recordings of 2015.

It’s a well-known fact that but for August the Strong and Johann Sebastian Bach, Saxons would have been extinct as a people hundreds of years ago. As they would say in these two households: Issue is no issue! Rough estimates of the time count up to 492 children of Bach’s, that master of the grand organ. Maybe a couple less, but at least 20. One of them, the eldest son and going by the family nickname of “Nummer Zwei”, was Wilhelm Friedemann. It’s little wonder that with whatever public attention there can be, divided by so many composer-kids, and with their father such a towering genius, there’s less historic room in the limelight for that letter-soup of Bach-sons (never mind other relatives!) who also composed: C.P.E., G.H., J.C., J.C.F., J.G.… and our W.F. at hand.

Of the four sons that composed seriously and lastingly, Wilhelm Friedemann probably ranks behind Carl Philipp Emanuel (the “Hamburg Bach”) and Johann Christian (the “London Bach”), but ahead of the “Bückenburg Bach”, Johann Christoph Friedrich. He ended up best known not for his own output but for his father’s keyboard instruction-manual, the “Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach”. Well, you’d never know him to be overshadowed, listening to this release!

This is, now in all seriousness, a staggeringly terrific collection of W.F.Bach harpsichord concertos and sinfonias that sheds all nonsense prejudice I have about galant style works. The Il Convito ensemble and director-soloist Maude Gratton play with such panache, there’s not a second’s time to question if this music is anything but great. It doesn’t sound like it sits uncomfortably between styles with which we are familiar, it simply rocks. Bad Willy is depicted in accounts that one may have read second-hand descriptions of as a capricious, frittering man, unsuccessfully trying to escape his father’s shadow. It’s bound to be inaccurate to some degree, but there’ll be truth to it, too. Just compare his excellent portrait by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, which shows a flamboyantly rakish W.F., wearing a hat with such a coy attitude, you can see the feather in that cap, although it’s not even depicted. Now compare that to Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of the youngest Bach son, Johann Christian, which is equally excellent and couldn’t be more different, with the serious, collected, confident young man shown. It makes the stories of W.F. as a socially maladroit, wildly talented virtuoso and reluctant pioneer of free-lance musicianship quite believable.

I have yet to develop more keener ears for his music to determine with any accuracy the stylistic changes from his earlier – 1730s – to his later – 1770s – works on this disc, but since I’ll plop this one into the player many, many more times, I am confident that I will eventually. The liner notes are very enjoyable and well translated from French into English and German. All in all one of the very happy surprises on my desk, this year.

This review was also published on MusicWeb International.

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