Astronio Makes W.F. Bach’s Keyboard Works Come Alive


COMPLETE HARPSICHORD MUSIC / W.F. BACH: Fantasias, F14-23. Fugues, F32-33. Sonatas F1-9, F200-204. 12 Polonaises, F12. Concerto in G, F40. Suite in G min., F24. 8 Fugues, F31. Minuet in G min. Presto in D min. La caccia in C. Reveille in C. Gigue in G. Prelude in C min. March in E-flat. Polonaise & Trio in C. Overture in E-flat. Minuet I – II. 3 Variations on Minuet I in F. March in F. Allegro, BR A62. Fantasias in D min. & G. Allegros in D & D min. Minuet–Trio in C. Minuet in G with 13 Variations, BR A110. 4 Chorale Preludes* / Claudio Astronio, harpsichordist/*organist / Brilliant Classics 94240

I confess to being unaware of most of the music of Bach’s sons until I was in my forties, which was after 1991, and then mostly the music of the most astonishing and creative of them, Carl Philipp Emanuel or C.P.E. Slowly, however, I became familiar with the music of Johann Christian and Wilhelm Friedemann, liking some of it quite a bit but finding much of J.C. Bach’s music somewhat derivative and much of W.F. Bach’s music too much like his father’s to really be individual. This did not, however, include W.F.’s harpsichord pieces, particularly the Fantasias, which I found original and quite interesting.

Enter Claudio Astronio, an early-music specialist who has performed as both harpsichordist and conductor with such luminaries as Emma Kirkby, Dan Laurin, Susanne Rydén, Yuri Bashmet and the late Gustav Leonhardt (one of my all-time favorite harpsichordists). Astronio is also attracted to jazz, and has performed in that capacity with Maria Pia de Vito, Michel Godard and Paolo Fresu, so he knows a thing or two about improvisation.

Why is this relevant or important? Because, dear reader, many of these pieces, particularly the Fantasias but also the sets of variations, were improvised into being. And yes, the same thing was probably true for some of his father’s music as well. Up until the 1870s, most keyboard artists (and some, but not all, solo string players) were expected to improvise as they played, particularly the cadenzas of concertos. One of the most “mysterious” of all of J.S. Bach’s famous pieces—which is no mystery at all to the improvising jazz musician—is the very brief “slow movement” of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, which consists of a few long-held orchestral chords with (usually) a harpsichord playing some cadenza-like flourishes over them. Musicians of Bach’s day knew that this was a signal to improvise for an extended period of time, but since most modern “early music” specialists don’t or can’t improvise, because they never learned the principles of it,. all you get are a few flourishes over the held chords.

As Astronio puts it in the liner notes:

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s keyboard music is a kaleidoscope of forms, styles and charms, and has for many years captured my attention and influenced the direction of my work. His music has kindled in me a personal interest and passion for this extraordinary man.

Sonatas, polonaises, minuets, variations, fantasias, fugues, chorale preludes, a suite, a concerto and an ouverture: amongst these one finds a combination of Sturm und Drang turmoil, the styles in vogue in Friedemann’s day, and homages to the musical language of his beloved father Johann Sebastian. All of his works display highly virtuosic technical and experimental keyboard techniques…

My recent acquaintance with unpublished scores contained in the Vilnius manuscript (CD6) has for me added an exciting dimension to Wilhelm Friedemann’s musical output: from the Ouverture, which, in its structure, references the style of his father, to the highly modern and virtuosic Minuet with 13 variations, not to mention the shorter pieces, which, despite being atypical in style, nevertheless bear witness to exquisite craftsmanship and extraordinary technical and musical research.

In addition, the manuscript has revealed new elements regarding the fantasias. For example, the score published as Fantasia in D is here presented as the last movement of the preceding Fantasia in D minor (CD1:6–7), as elaborated by David Schulenberg in his notes. For this reason, I have recorded the Fantasias in sequence, despite the fact that they come from separate sources. The cadenzas in the Fantasias in D minor F19 and E minor F21 (CD1:3, 8) are by C.P.E. Bach and have been adapted to the scores as suggested by David Schulenberg.

As you can tell from the above, then, Astronio is truly passionate about this music, and it shows in his performances. He takes not the generally-accepted “streamlined” approach to playing these works, as one hears in the playing of many other keyboardists, but fills his performances with rubato, rallentando and other time-altering effects that almost makes them sound like the music of his father’s model and musical idol, Diedrich Buxtehude. Almost none of W.F. Bach’s boldest excursions in the Fantasias are predictable, despite the fact that this was an 18th-century composer who had no interest in the use of continual dissonance or even what we now consider “outside” playing, i.e., moving into upper harmonics as a means of variation. His musical world, like his father’s, was built around chromatic movement that always resolved itself harmonically, but within that framework he could be quite bold—though seldom as bold as his genius younger brother, C.P.E.

That being said, most of C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard works were written while he was in the service of Frederick the Great in Berlin. Frederick was a music lover and a fairly kind employer, but his musical tastes were old-fashioned, which led him to prefer the music of Johann Quantz (another of his employees) and direct C.P.E. to compose relatively conventional music. (When his father Johann Sebastian visited Carl Philipp in Berlin, he saw how the situation was, and so as a gift and “tribute” to Frederick wrote A Musical Offering, which was far more technically difficult than Frederick could play on his flute. In this way, the older Bach got back at Frederick for holding his son down.) Only in C.P.E.’s later keyboard works, particularly the concertos which he wrote while in Hamburg, did his incendiary genius come into full flower.

Some years ago I reviewed Julia Brown’s recording of six W.F. Bach keyboard sonatas (Naxos 8.573177) and while I praised her for her consistent energy and liveliness of approach, I wasn’t particularly fond of the music, finding it quite predictable and ordinary. Listening to the way Astronio plays these same sonatas, however, gives one a somewhat different perspective. For one thing, his forward momentum and “binding” of phrases is superior to Brown’s, which makes the music sound more logical and sequential to the ear. For another, he tends to give a slight emphasis to those few unusual and subtle chord changes in W.F. Bach’s music, which (again) makes the ear pick up the differences. Just for an example, the middle theme in the second-movement (“Andante”) of the Sonata in C, BR A1 is played much louder than the surrounding material, with an almost martial beat which makes it stand out. Interestingly this same movement, though marked “Andante,” is played at a fairly brisk tempo, so much so that the third movement “Presto” sounds about the same. Whether or not one accepts this as appropriate, it surely binds the second movement together much more concisely. In the middle (slow) movement of the Sonata in A, F8, Astronio uses the damper on his instrument to achieve a lovely “plucked lute” effect. That being said, not even Astronio could make some of this music more interesting, i.e. the last movement of the Sonata in D, F4 (BR A5) or the first movement of the Sonata in E-flat, F5 (BR A7); they just consist of repeated, flashy licks, nothing much to write home about.

Yet his variety of touch and tempo is very welcome in those Sonatas which, as I said in my review of Brown’s disc, can sound pretty ordinary when played prosaically. You need an imaginative interpreter to make them come to life, and hearing all of them in order one realizes why W.F. probably failed to catch on and find jobs as easily as his brothers. His music, though brilliant, flashy, and often inventive, generally lacked warmth. Even his father’s music had considerable warmth at times, as did C.P.E.’s music, and C.P.E.’s most brilliant music also had a feeling of inner exuberance about it, i.e., an emotional appeal. By contrast, his older brother’s music was brilliant and flashy like a platinum obelisk…interesting, and with considerable variety (the opening movement of the Sonata in F, BR A11, is vastly different in rhythm and accent from the preceding Sonata), but revealing nothing of the inner person who wrote it. It is music that impresses, sometimes very much so, but does not endear. And yet Johann Sebastian was convinced that because brilliant invention and coherent form came so easily to him that Wilhelm Friedemann was the family genius, and predicted a great career that never happened. (Of course there’s also the fact, as Astronio points out, that W.F. Bach made zero concessions to popular taste, as Mozart and his kid brother J.C. Bach did, and when you don’t concede to popular taste you end up scuffling for gigs.)

There also seem to be some huge discrepancies in the length of the movements of certain sonatas as compared to Julia Brown—the first movement of the Sonata in E minor, BR A9, only takes 4:46 in Brown’s recording, and the booklet claims that Astronio’s performance only takes 4:14, but in fact he takes 11:45 to get through it, and there are themes played here that do not appear in Brown’s recording. Another huge discrepancy occurs in the Sonata in C, F200/BR A1. Brown’s performance of the entire sonata only takes 8:04. The booklet gives the timings for the three movements as 4:14, 2:29 and 2:00—perfectly in line with what Brown does—except that in actual practice these movements time out at 8:44, 12:08 and 9:58. The next two sonatas, F6a/BR A11 and F204/BR A9, also take longer to perform in Astronio’s edition, and the Sonata in A, F8, is much longer that advertised in the booklet (35 minutes rather than 14). I guess it depends on the editions used, but surely some explanation was in order. Although the liner notes refer to the Sonata in C F200 as W.F.’s first, written in the Italian style, they give no hint as to why it is so much longer in Astronio’s performance. Weird!

I don’t know how many hours Astronio spent honing each of these pieces, but it sounds to me as if he plays W.F. Bach in his sleep. There’s a certain facility of fingering that borders on the facile but for his consistent enthusiasm and the manner in which he contrasts differing themes. In short, Astronio doesn’t sound like an automaton playing these works, but rather adds his own brio to W.F. Bach’s natural tendency to dazzle. Hearing all this music in long marathon sessions, as I did when reviewing it, is a bit detrimental. I would recommend listening in small doses, perhaps pausing between numbers to let the music sink in. I mean, really, hearing six hours and 43 minutes’ worth of such technically dazzling and terribly intricate music can give you a headache. Just think of what it’s like to listen to six hours of Art Tatum without a break, or six hours of Schoenberg. Intricate, fast and dazzling music can be a treat to hear but not as a marathon.

Having never seen the scores, I can’t tell of W.F. Bach’s polonaises are written exactly the way Astronio plays them or if this is his artistic conception, but they’re not in a true polonaise tempo or rhythm, but rather sound like more Fantasias. (I speak from personal experience, being of Polish descent.) Moreover, the tempi are extremely varied, some being much faster than a true polonaise and some much slower. They are, however, quite inventive—the Polonaise No. 4 in D minor, for instance, is a slow, restless piece with strange, intricate chromatic harmony, and Polonaise No. 11 gets into some truly convoluted rhythm—and Astronio certainly livens them up in his performances. The Keyboard Concerto, W.F. Bach’s only one, is played here just by the solo harpsichord, but it’s a good piece. Someone (maybe Astronio?) should write out an orchestration for it…but DON’T play it with straight tone and ruin it! Oddly, I also had the feeling that the Suite in G minor could also be orchestrated effectively to provide a background to Bach’s very interesting and imaginative variations. And interestingly, the sixth of his 8 Fugues is a really lovely piece that many listeners may not even catch it as a fugue.

The several short pieces, which include the Fantasia F22 (left out of the original sequence for some reason), another polonaise & trio (F13) and tunes with titles like Minuet in G minor, Presto in D minor, La caccia in C, Reveille in C, Gigue in G etc., are really good, interesting little works, with several surprising twists in them.

The last CD encompasses a group of works, previously unknown, which were copied by a friend of the composer who lived in Vilnius, Lithuania. These pieces, which include four short chorale preludes played on the organ, are recorded here for the first time. Pride of place goes to the Minuet in G with 13 Variations, which—surprisingly for Wilhelm Friedemann—are relatively simple in design and not too challenging to play (except for the 4th, 10th and 13th variations, which are quite virtuosic), but the rather long (8:48) Ouverture in E-flat is very creative and the two “new” Fantasias, though brief, are sparkling pieces. The four short chorale preludes are nice but not essential music except that they are relatively unknown pieces by W.F. Bach.

The recorded sound is somewhat unusual: forward and clear, with good power coming from the bass, but a little claustrophobic, as if it were recorded in a small living room. Yes, there’s some natural reverb around it, but the mic placement is both an advantage (letting us hear everything clearly) and a disadvantage (boxing the sound in a bit). I rush to point out, however, that the sonics are not unpleasant or uncomfortable, and they are surely superior to the way Bis has been recording Miklos Spanyi in C.P.E. Bach’s solo keyboard works, but they are a bit unusual. By contrast, the four organ pieces are recorded at a bit of a distance from the pipes. For the most part, high recommended. I think you’ll come to appreciate W.F. Bach a lot more after hearing this set than you did before!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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