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Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, January 2009

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710–1784) was Johann Sebastian’s eldest son and the one who followed most closely in his father’s musical footsteps. Renowned as a distinguished organist, Wilhelm was exposed to the new fashions taking hold in music at the time—stil galant and Empfindsamer stil, and in Dresden, to the “corrupting” influence of opera, from which no good could come to a pure and pious Lutheran boy. Yet he managed to resist temptation by fleeing the big, bad, liberal city and taking up a post as organist at the Liebfrauenkirche in Halle, the center of Pietism, where “music was suffered only as a means of ‘inspiring and refreshing the congregation in worship,’” a warning stipulated in his contract. His father had met with similar stern caveats from the rectors of Leipzig’s St. Thomaskirche, but mostly paid them no heed.

Perhaps Wilhelm thought Halle would be his salvation from those theological freethinkers at the Dresden court, but it was too late; he had tasted of the forbidden fruit. In contrast to his feisty father, however, Wilhelm was not as strong-willed or as keen for confrontation. Instead, he internalized his frustrations and suffered in silence until, in 1764, he’d finally had enough. He walked out on his job at the Liebfrauenkirche with only the clothes on his back and with no prospects in sight. When he died 20 years later, he left a wife and daughter penniless and dependent for support on the kindness of charity.

Glyn Pursglove of MusicWeb International, in his review of Volume 1 of this series [8.557966], provides an insightful analysis of how and why W. F. Bach came to such a sad end. Basically, Pursglove paints Wilhelm as the victim of elder-son syndrome—the boy on whom the father pins his highest expectations for success, expectations the boy tries mightily to fulfill but not for lack of effort can’t. The boy grows to manhood and spends his life trying to fill the shoes of the father he looked up to and idolized; and when he finally realizes it’s not to be, he succumbs to the pressure and sinks into a state of self-abnegation. Consciously or not, Johann Sebastian probably did expect and hope for more from his eldest son than Wilhelm was capable of; and consciously or not, Wilhelm probably did carry the burden of believing he had disappointed his father. As Pursglove puts it, “Wilhelm doubtless wanted to do more than merely imitate his father’s music. At times he struck off in new directions, doing things his father would never have done and would almost certainly have disapproved of; at other times he wrote music which might indeed have been mistaken for work by his father.”

That is clearly evident from the pieces on this disc, some so similar in musical vocabulary to that of J. S. Bach one would be hard-pressed to discern the difference; others having almost a Scarlatti-like character. Yet it’s as if each foray into new territory is reversed by a retreat back to safer ground.

It’s likely that what remains of Wilhelm’s output is but the tip of a much larger iceberg, a supposition based on the fact that most of it was circulated in unpublished manuscripts. What we have, at least on record, are almost exclusively works for organ and keyboard. There are a few concertos for harpsichord and orchestra and a handful of flute duets and trio sonatas that have been recorded. But with only a few exceptions, recordings of the symphonies, masses, and numerous sacred cantatas have not been forthcoming.

The numbering system in common use for Wilhelm’s works was published in 1913 by Martin Falck, hence the “Fk” designators. The current CD, “Keyboard Works 2, Fantasias and Fugues,” is made up of individual, standalone pieces that are not conjoined as are J. S. Bach’s fantasias and fugues. Julia Brown, however, has programmed her recital in a way that cleverly suggests such conjoining by following each fantasia with two fugues that are either all in the same key, or in which the fantasia is in a closely related key to the same-keyed two fugues that follow it. Only the last two tracks break the pattern by presenting two fantasias in a row.

Two of the fantasias—the one in C Minor, Fk 15, at 19 minutes, and the E Minor, Fk 21, at 10 minutes—are substantial works. All of the other pieces are significantly shorter, but none is without interest. As alluded to earlier, some of them will give you pause as to who composed them. The huge and magnificent C-Minor Fantasia that opens the disc could easily have been written by J. S. Bach. Much of it resembles one of the elder Bach’s toccatas, and one section in particular beginning at 3:35 could have been lifted right out of J. S.’s Chromatic Fantasy.

In contrast, W. F.’s fugue subjects and his treatment of them sound less like J. S. than they do Couperin. Then there are passages in the A-Minor Fantasia that would not be out of place in a Scarlatti sonata.

Rio de Janeiro-born Julia Brown is both a noted harpsichordist and organist. This is my first encounter with her, but I can tell you she is wonderful. Equally wonderful is the sound of her Richard Kingston harpsichord. This is a most welcome addition to the Naxos catalog, and I highly recommend it.

Johan van Veen
MusicWeb International, August 2008

In her performances Julia Brown aims to pointing up the contrasts in these Fantasias. She takes her time in the slow sections, some of which are played really slow; also she isn't afraid of breathing spaces between phrases or sections. The fast sections could have been taken a bit faster, as the Fantasias take considerably more time here than in other recordings. Having said that Julia Brown is well able to keep the listener's attention, even in the first Fantasia on the programme which lasts almost 19 minutes. …Wilhelm Friedemann Bach's keyboard music never fails to fascinate and the unmistakable qualities of his oeuvre come well to the fore in Julia Brown's fine interpretations.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2008

The eldest son and pupil of Johann Sebastian Bach, Wilhelm Friedmann has been described as a difficult and possibly dissolute person

The eldest son and pupil of Johann Sebastian Bach, Wilhelm Friedmann has been described as a difficult and possibly dissolute person who was unable to retain regular employment, though he was highly regarded as an organist. A prolific composer who wrote in many genres, his general style hovered between that which was contemporary with his life and that of previous generations. In content it reflected his life, being often stormy and unpredictable. His lack of a settled existence probably accounts for so much being lost, most of it never printed in his lifetime. He was particularly remembered for his deeply felt Polonaises, though it is the Eight Fugues contained in this disc by which he will be best remembered. Highly complex for the performer, they are well constructed pieces, but memorable thematic material was not his strong point. If you want to sample his talent you should go to track 10, the Fantasia in C minor, a work that would stand comparison with the finest compositions of his father, and which I number among the foremost keyboard scores from the Baroque era. Programming this disc Julia Brown has used six Fantasias to punctuate the Fugues, questionable at face value but working well in practice. Naxos has already issued this Brazilian-born musician in that monumental series of Buxtehude organ works, and though I have enjoyed her there, I think her harpsichord playing moves her up the musical ladder. She has that ability to bring clarity to Bach’s most densely scored pages at a time when Fugues had reached their ultimate complexity. The recording is infected by an unwanted  metallic quality, and it would be nice to hear Brown recorded in Naxos’s major UK harpsichord venues.

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