IN: Reviews

Bach-to-Bach Works


David Schulenberg (Michael Rocha photo)

On December 16, 2010, the 240th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, harpsichordist David Schulenberg presented an all-Bach noonday recital at the First Church in Boston (timing obviously unintentional). 2010 does, however, mark the tercentenary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-1784), and Dr. Schulenberg quite deliberately programmed a recital featuring works of both father and son, with an emphasis on the latter.

J. S. Bach was both a prolific composer and progenitor. Of his twenty offspring, Wilhelm Friedemann was Sebastian’s second-born and first son. He was also the first of four sons who would go on to have careers as composers. Unlike his younger brothers, however, Friedemann enjoyed little success, and his relatively modest extant output is infrequently heard today. This is certainly not due to any lack of ability, however: Friedemann’s compositions tend to be complex and well-crafted. Theories abound, but it seems as if a combination of a relatively obstreperous personality, a possible tippling problem, the propensity to improvise as opposed to penning compositions, and the tendency to produce works that were perhaps too convoluted for their own good, conspired to mire Friedemann in relative obscurity. Hats off to Schulenberg for resurrecting some of the long-neglected compositions of this intriguing musician.

After opening with two brief J. S. Bach Praeludia (C Major, BWV 924 and e minor, BWV 932), the remainder of the program was all Friedemann. This instructive Bach-to-Bach juxtaposition of two musical generations served to illustrate both the many similarities as well as the few key differences between father and son. Of Sebastian’s four composer offspring, Friedemann’s style was considered most like that of his father. Generally speaking, the younger Bach’s works tend to maintain the contrapuntal nature of J.S. (though not to the same degree of complexity), while incorporating more expressivity.

Schulenberg packed a fascinating and wide-ranging sampler of W. F. Bach’s music into a scant half-hour recital. The opening Praeludia were followed by L’imitation de la chasse (The imitation of hunting), F. 26, featuring multifarious challenging hand-crossings; La Reveille, F. 27, a rousing piece quite evocative of the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti; three selections from Eight Fugues, F. 31 (no. 4 in d minor, no. 1 in C Major, no. 6 in e minor), each reminiscent of his father’s monumental works in this genre, though without the elder Bach’s intricacy; two Polonaises (G Major, F. 12/11, c minor, F. 12/2), both featuring chromatic flourishes, and the March in E-flat Major, F. 30, Friedemann’s only existing foray into this style.

Ah, but the juiciest was saved for last: the third movement (Vivace) from WFB’s Concerto in g minor, F. deest, originally written for strings and keyboard. This solo keyboard version, à la instructions in the original manuscript, segregated the strings to the lower keyboard and solo passages to the upper, which made for quite a dynamic, virtuosic, demanding, and compelling work, featuring an arpeggio-laden orchestral section and lightning-fast transitions to the solo riffs. Piques one’s curiosity as to the sound of the original orchestral incarnation.

Schulenberg’s playing style was direct and no-nonsense; very little in the way of flow or gesture. This straighforward approach, though generally accurate and effective, came across as a bit dry, a tad tight, and somewhat academic at times. The instrument was overly bright and rather “buzzy” (jack rail noise?) and had been tuned to some sort of tangy temperament. This in combination with the rather challenging music created an overall effect that was a bit harsh to this listener’s ears. That said, this was a thoroughly absorbing performance, with a thoughtfully crafted program. How often does one enjoy a smorgasbord of the works of a heretofore little-known yet brilliant composer during half of one’s lunch hour? Polyphony on pumpernickel to go, please; hold the ostinato!

Dr. Schulenberg’s newly-published book, The Music of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, explores this enigmatic composer’s oft-neglected works in rich detail here. We can only hope that Schulenberg’s efforts will result in more ears being exposed to Friedemann’s musical legacy.

More information on First Church Boston’s Thursday harpsichord recital series may be found here.

Michael Rocha is a self-described “long-ago” music teacher, a long-time music enthusiast and pianist, and a short-time Web designer: He has an MS in Meteorology from MIT.

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