About this Recording
8.557966 - BACH, W.F.: Keyboard Works, Vol. 1 - 12 Polonaises / Sonata, Fk. 3 (Hill)
English  German 

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710–1784)
Keyboard Works Vol. 1

 

22 January 1720: On this day, Johann Sebastian Bach gave his first-born son Wilhelm Friedemann, then ten years old, a small blank book in which to document the beginning of his formal instruction in music. Calling it Clavier-Büchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, the father used the book to record pieces which he first composed for his son's education as a keyboardist. Thus, the volume preserves a remarkable collection of "works in progress", including early versions of a number of preludes from what shortly thereafter became the Well-Tempered Clavier, as well as almost complete sets of early versions – some containing significant compositional revisions – of the Inventions and Sinfonias. Bach's first plan for the ordering of these sets differed from the ordering he settled on later: in the Clavier-Büchlein the Inventions (here called Praeambula) and the Sinfonias (here Fantasien) are presented in ascending, then descending key order:

C - d - e - F - G - a - B flat - b - A - g - f - E - E flat - D - c.

I dwell on this point because, when looking at the Polonaises, Falck 12, of Wilhelm Friedemann, it is evident that his early participation in the genesis of the cycles of the Inventions and Sinfonias deeply influenced the young and extremely talented boy. For, in composing his cycle of twelve Polonaises some forty years later, he adopted a plan much like that of the Inventions and Sinfonias. Arguably Wilhelm Friedemann's most significant keyboard compositions, the Polonaises too are organized in a cyclical form, in ascending key order (like J. S. Bach's final organizational plan for his two sets). In accordance with eighteenth-century convention, Wilhelm Friedemann restricted his set to twelve pieces, in the order:

C - c - D - d - E flat - e flat - E - e - F - f - G - g.

In their originality, concentration and breadth of expression, the Polonaises establish Wilhelm Friedemann's credentials as a composer worthy to be measured against his father. As a form, the polonaise was ideally suited to his purposes: it was galant and fashionable, yet lacked most formal constraints other than its time signature (3/4), binary structure and modest dimensions. At the time, there was apparently no consensus on what otherwise characterized a "polonaise". The Poles themselves disdained as inauthentic the German association of a characteristic rhythm with this dance. The polonaise could be in major or in minor mode, lively or introspective in mood, as witnessed by a contemporary Polish collection of 62 polonaises (1772).

The empfindsam expressive language that Wilhelm Friedemann developed together with his German contemporaries is nowhere more eloquent, poetic and persuasive than in the twelve Polonaises. In these compositions he pioneered the expansion and ultimately the emancipation (or breakdown) of the tonal system through the sleight-of-hand of the multiple appoggiatura, a device made famous through Richard Wagner's Tristan chord. For example, Friedemann's Webern-like miniature Polonaise, Falck 12/4, in D minor, plays deftly with harmonic disorientation (in bars two and four) as the central expressive element.

The Sonata in D major, Falck 3 (1745), represents Wilhelm Friedemann's "Opus One", for it is the work with which he first presented himself to the public in published form. Envisioned as the first of a set of six sonatas, he apparently had to abandon this plan after the publication of Falck 3. The decidedly uncompromising standard set by the D major Sonata, both in terms of its expressive aims and the technical demands it makes on the player, poses barriers for the modern performer, and probably did so for his contemporaries as well. The tempo indication Un poco allegro for the first movement gives a hint of the expressive complexity within. I have treated the tempo indication literally: "a little happy", making for an unsettled movement seemingly longing for resolution in something simpler and less conflicted. The Adagio middle movement is a tour-de-force of contrapuntal technique in the service of "sensibilité". The tonal architecture peaks in a sequence of extraordinary harmonic events in the second half: a reprise in the subdominant gets interrupted by an unprecedented deceptive cadence which, via the smoke-and-mirrors of appoggiatura technique sounds to the attentive listener like an abrupt modulation from E minor to C minor. A little later on, we find ourselves modulating from G major to F sharp major with a single pivot chord. The concluding movement is significantly entitled Vivace, indicating that the tempo is lively, yet in accordance with eighteenth-century convention quite moderate, this to facilitate the no-holds-barred technical virtuosity demanded by the contrapuntal imitation in the middle of the second half, a level of technical difficulty found, to be sure, in the concluding G minor Polonaise and in a few of Friedemann's fantasies, but otherwise very rarely seen in eighteenth-century keyboard music.

Each of Friedemann's Fantasies explores an individual answer to the question: what criteria define the form of the mid-eighteenth-century German keyboard fantasia? In the Fantasy in A minor, Falck 23, the exchange of recitative-like passages with more structured sections is a formal idea recognisable in improvisatory works by his contemporaries. Little prepares us (or, presumably, the listeners of his time), however, for the explosive Prestissimo section which concludes the Fantasy. And he does not permit us to recover from the shock effect either: the piece seems to burn itself out, spending all its fuel at once.

The First Romantic: From his unhappy biography to his perhaps deserved reputation as the ungrateful recipient of an over-involved father's attention, the artist Wilhelm Friedemann Bach presents us with a mix that by most definitions would qualify as 'Romantic': his individualism, his use of superb compositional technique in the service of poetic poignancy, the way he set up technical barriers for the keyboardist to overcome, his anticipation of harmonic devices central to nineteenth-century tonal language, all these are marks of a genius who was unable to fit into the career paths available in his time.

The Fortepiano

For this recording I have used a reconstruction of a Florentine fortepiano c.1720 in the manner of Bartolomeo Cristofori, made by Keith Hill (Manchester, Michigan, USA, 1999). The inventor of the piano action, Cristofori also solved, over the period of at least a quarter century, the essential problems of tuning stability inherent in a mechanism in which the string is struck rather than plucked. His ideas were early on exported to Germany, but not in the form of actual instruments. Rather, German instrument-makers had to make do with a published description and a diagram of the action. Thus, the German fortepiano built by Silbermann and others solved the stability problems quite differently, issuing in a complex evolutionary process that, over many decades, ultimately resulted in the development of what we now know as the 'Steinway' grand piano. Remarkably, Cristofori anticipated many of the solutions which were finally adopted in modern grand piano design. I chose to use a Cristofori model because I prize the delightfully flexible sound of the brass strings found throughout the instrument, following the Italian tradition of harpsichord stringing (North European makers used iron from the tenor upwards). The "bloom" of the brass strings very efficiently supports the empfindsam gestures in the musical idea.

Robert Hill

 


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