Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Johan van Veen
MusicWeb International, February 2011

In the 18th century two important developments in the realm of keyboard music took place. Firstly, the role of the keyboard in music for instrumental ensemble changed. Traditionally it was limited to playing the basso continuo. But during the first half of the 18th century composers began to write music in which the keyboard was given a concertante part. Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the first to do so in his harpsichord concertos and his sonatas for keyboard and violin. Secondly, the dominance of the harpsichord was broken around the middle of the century with the emergence of the fortepiano which had been developed around 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori.

It wasn’t until the 1770s that the fortepiano was fully accepted as an alternative to the harpsichord. Most music for keyboard, whether solo or as part of an instrumental ensemble, could be played on harpsichord or fortepiano. That does not mean it doesn’t matter which instrument is chosen. It is an established fact that Johann Christian Bach played the fortepiano in public concerts, and that makes it plausible to choose this instrument to perform the two concertos recorded here. They were written in the 1770s, and when Bach played them the fortepiano still wasn’t a common instrument in England. In her liner notes Susan Alexander-Max writes that when Bach was playing the fortepiano in public, Muzio Clementi—who was to become a manufacturer of fortepianos—was still playing the harpsichord.

These two concertos are written in the galant idiom for which Johann Christian was famous. The melody is the most important part of these compositions. And as Bach always had a good feeling for what would go down well with his audience, the Concerto in B flat ends with an ‘allegro con moto’ which is based on the Scottish song ‘The Yellow-haired Laddie’. It is notable that these concertos are scored for keyboard, two violins and cello, without a part for the viola. This strongly suggests a performance with one instrument per part, a practice which is followed here. The fortepiano isn’t specified in the booklet. It is a nice-sounding instrument, but a table piano had probably been more appropriate, as the recording by David Owen Norris and Sonnerie shows (“The World’s First Piano Concertos”—Avie AV0014).

The two other concertos on this disc were previously attributed to Johann Christian Bach as well. But recent research has revealed that they were written by his older brother Johann Christoph Friedrich, generally known as the Bückeburger Bach. They are quite different from Johann Christian’s concertos. The scoring includes a part for viola, and the whole texture suggests a larger ensemble than one instrument per part. That doesn’t mean that this ‘minimalistic’ scoring is historically wrong, just that a larger ensemble would give these concertos more impact. The fortepiano used here is more appropriate in these concertos than in Johann Christian’s.

The two by Johann Christoph Friedrich are also different in their idiom. The slow movements bear the traces of the Empfindsamkeit. In both the strings play with mute, which was a very common phenomenon in solo concertos and symphonies from the middle of the 18th century. The fast movements have some of the nervousness of the Sturm und Drang. In both concertos the keyboard regularly plays drum basses, also a common feature of music from the mid-18th century.

The performances give a good idea of the character and quality of these keyboard concertos. Susan Alexander-Max plays with panache and verve in the fast movements, and exposes the expression in the slow movements quite well. The strings give good support—and that is exactly what their role is. The keyboard is in the centre of the proceedings, and that is reflected in the recording.

This disc is recommendable not only for the quality of the music but also for the performances. The oeuvre of these two sons of Johann Sebastian Bach is still underestimated. This CD could well serve to change that.

Tim Perry
MusicWeb International, October 2008

The booklet notes to this release make interesting reading. American fortepianist Susan Alexander-Max reveals that this was initially intended to be an album dedicated to the music of Johann Christian Bach. J.C. Bach was the youngest of J.S. Bach's surviving sons and was probably more famous and popularly successful than the rest of his brothers put together. After extending his education in Italy he established himself as “the London Bach”. He won fame throughout Europe as a leading exponent of the new and fashionable gallant style of music, sweeping aside the fussiness of the Baroque period with a sleek new Classicism. It helped that he was also a keyboard virtuoso – hardly surprising given that he would have heard his clan of older siblings playing the 48 while he was still in utero. 

However, as The Music Collection rehearsed what had always been thought to be two of J.C. Bach's Op.7 concertos for keyboard for the recording, doubts began to set in about their provenance. Putting aside the difference in instrumentation—the addition of a viola which is absent in the Op.13 concertos—there was something about the music that “did not feel or sound like Johann Christian”. A little digging revealed that these two concertos have been recently and reliably attributed to a different Bach: to Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, three years J.C. Bach's senior and, like their older half brother Carl Philipp Emanuel, a court musician in Germany. 

The Music Collection—founded by Alexander-Max for the promotion of 18th and early 19th Century fortepiano repertoire – recorded the J.C.F. Bach concertos anyway; they bookend the J.C. Bach concertos, making for an attractive program of contrasting styles. All four concertos are certainly pleasing. Much of the interest in each piece comes from the keyboard's elaboration of thematic material stated by the strings, and it is the way in which this is handled that marks the difference between the brothers' styles. When their concertos are played one after the other the greater liquidity of the London Bach's melodic invention, his lighter touch and his more winning charm are evident. 

In all four pieces the scoring is very economical with only one instrument per part in the tiny, eminently practical “orchestra” that accompanies the soloist—though the J.C. Bach concertos allow for optional winds which are not employed here. To prevent textures thinning out, the fortepiano provides a continuo when not spinning the solo line. 

The performances are commendable, bringing the scores to life with due observance of period performance practice. Susan Alexander-Max shapes her solo lines with grace, ease and intelligence. I enjoyed her recent Clementi disc immensely, and her playing is just as magical here. I would be interested in hearing a bit about her instrument. It sounds like a modern replica fortepiano – sweet-toned and supple. The warm and intimate Naxos recording certainly presents it and the accompanying strings in their best light. A delightful disc.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2008

The more I hear of Johann Christian Bach - and I have been hearing a lot recently – the more I find myself enjoying it more than the works of his illustrious father. I say ‘enjoy’ as he was a composer who seemed intent on making his audience happy, his keyboard concertos a perfect example of that milieu. He was known as the ‘English’ Bach as he lived most of his mature life in London where the dearth of good composers quickly elevated his status. He and was also quick to see the virtues of the newfangled instrument, the fortepiano, charming his audiences while others where working in the more restrictive harpsichord. As music poured forth from the Bach family the authorship of many works has been in serious doubt, and this applies to two of the concertos on this disc. Once thought to be the work of Johann Christian, they are now attributed Johann Christoph Friedrich. Juxtaposing the two composers on this disc does certainly place them as from very different hands, the two opus 13 concertos from J.C. having an elegance and wit that the other concertos do not possess, worthy though they might be. Just to prove how ungrateful a critic can be, I find Johann Christian’s music crying out for the chamber orchestra accompaniments that I have heard in the concert hall. With the three string players of The Music Collection you will find these performances more akin to a Piano Quartet than a Concerto, and we must be ever mindful that by the end if the 18th century public performances would have enjoyed a much larger ensemble than those stated in published scores that were looking towards the domestic market. That said, Susan Alexander-Max plays the fortepiano with a nimble grace and an innate feel for the Baroque era, while the period string players have a long pedigree in Baroque performance. The group is immaculately balanced, the sound immediate yet cleanly defined. In period instrument releases, could Naxos please remember to give us the provenance of the instruments used.

Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, August 2008

The soloist here conducts from the keyboard, in keeping with a venerable tradition, and the group is aptly named The Music Collection. I like small ensembles for this music: voices are better balanced, and clarity is the byword. The soloist plays a fine sounding instrument, and the performances are solid and precise. What I question is the order of the music on the disc, which opens with what I found the weakest piece of the four concertos. Who am I to cast aspersions on a Bach? Yet the Concerto in A by JCF overuses the same trite fanfare at the beginning of virtually each restatement of the theme, which is truly tiresome. In fact, the entire work is over-long and sounds uninspired, so why lead with it? Nor are the works of Johann Christian ("The London Bach", and the boy Mozart's mentor) representative of his best work. Other than this cavil, the execution and recording are exemplary.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group