Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Benjamin Katz
American Record Guide, July 2011

Alexander-Max has a sweet tone at the instrument. She has in her repertoire a large variety of arpeggio styles, which she deploys skillfully according to the context of the music.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

MusicWeb International, April 2011

The decision by Naxos to record the six op. 5 sonatas of Johann Christian Bach on the clavichord is a brave one. Even more so than the harpsichord, the clavichord is likely to polarise listeners. In modern parlance its tone might be characterised as ‘in-your-face’—neon strip-lighting against the natural daylight of a grand piano.

But one thing the soft action of the clavichord does ensure is a sense of intimacy, which is apt for these almost sensual sonatas. Recording quality here is generally good, despite the fact that the very nature of the mechanics of the clavichord makes its sound rather elusive. Probably for that reason it has been recorded quite closely. At least the church setting coaxes as much resonance out of the instrument as it is willing to give.

Bach published these works in 1766 as Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord or the Fortepiano, Op. 5. These were the very first pieces published in London for the newly emergent piano, and Bach is also credited with the first piano recital in public. According to Susan Alexander-Max’s liner-notes, dynamic markings, such as frequent piano and forte, indicate a distinct leaning towards the latter instrument of Bach’s title. By this time he was already adopting the new square piano by manufacturers Zumpe as his keyboard instrument of preference. Pianists of the period would nevertheless still often have used a clavichord in the home for composition and practice. That is Alexander-Max’s justification for performing these works on the clavichord, a 2006 model based on a 1785 instrument.

Mozart greatly admired Bach’s music, and his own early works are clearly influenced by it. In fact, the young Mozart was so taken with Bach’s op. 5 that he recomposed nos. 2, 3 and 4 into an early piano concerto, KV.107. The works are generally in three movements, though nos. 1 and 4 are in an old-school two. By this time Bach was well into his cosmopolitan galant period, as these elegant, nuanced works can testify. The opening theme of Sonata no.6 bears a brief but striking resemblance to the famous Russian folksong, “Dark Eyes”. By the end of the movement it has morphed into a melancholy Neapolitan-like song of love lost. By this time the bizarre background noise is all too evident.

Alexander-Max’s technique is superb on this unforgiving instrument, and she extracts considerable expressiveness from it in the service of Bach’s suave, sophisticated music. 74 minutes is a long time to spend listening without a break to the clavichord. In smaller sessions of, say, two sonatas a go, the unique sonorities of this instrument, coupled with the brilliance and imagination of Bach’s music, make this an almost irresistible bargain…

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2011

Johann Christian Bach was the tenth son of Johann Sebastian, his travels around Europe bringing him fame during his lifetime that far exceeded that of his father. He was later to settle in London, where his reputation as a symphonic and opera composer flourished to an extent that engendered the name ‘the London Bach’. He had made his early career as a keyboard player, frequently performing the works of his half-brother, Carl Philipp Emanuel. Those works were to influence his own sonatas, though he added the Italian style garnered in his short stay in that country. The six opus 5 sonatas come from 1766 when the development of keyboard instruments was rapidly evolving, and while it is not absolutely clear which of them he intended to be employed, it is certain from the dynamic markings that it precluded the harpsichord. Dates would point to an early square piano, though the American-born, Susan Alexander-Max, has chosen a reproduction of a late 18th century clavichord which she seek to justify in her programme note without producing much historic support. Be that as it may, the copy made in London in 2006 is a gorgeous recreation that brings pungency and impact to the music. Thematic material is constantly attractive, and, as we hear in the first movement of the Second sonata, is had a lively rhythmic impulse. As a throwback to earlier times, three of the sonatas are in two contrasting movements, and maybe that tempts too much urgency from Alexander-Max in creating the feel of a finale in the second movement of the Third. Throughout the playing is cleanly delineated, and though the UK recording is very close, it does capture the instrument’s woody character.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group