CDs / DVDs

Fanfare, 27. Juni 1994
The title, which suggests that we are here being given Wilhelm Friedemann Bach's complete orchestral output, is misleading. There are several other symphonies (of varying description) besides these. The composer's oeuvre is in a messy state, owing partly to his own rather loose and dissolute way of life and partly to World War II, and so the exact number of orchestral works he composed—and even the number that have survived—is far from certain. But we do have here the fullest sampling that has yet, to my knowledge, appeared on compact disc.
As applied to the works of W. F. Bach, the term “symphony“ (or “sinfonia“) means two distinct things: a free-standing, self-sufficient work in two or more movements; or a shorter work, usually just a single movement, written to open a cantata. Or perhaps the two meanings are not all that distinct, after all. Nos. 65 and 67 in Martin Falck's 1913 catalog of W. F. Bach's works are of the former, self-sufficient sort; Nos. 85, 91, and 92 originally functioned as cantata-openers. But what about No. 64? It has three movements and takes between nine and ten minutes to perform, but also seems to have been written to introduce a Pentecost cantata, Dies ist der Tag, da Jesu Leidenskraft auf unsre Seele fliesset, which bears the separate number 85 in Falck's catalog. For although the symphony exists, by itself, in a holograph score that once belonged to Beethoven's first biographer, Anton Schindler, there was once a combined set of autograph parts to the symphony and the cantata in the Musik-Bibliothek Peters at Leipzig. These are now, alas, lost. As Traugott Fedtke, most recent editor of the score of F. 64, notes in his preface:
It is quite remarkable that Bach used a sinfonia of three movements to precede a Pentecost cantata, if only for the amount of time it would take up during a church service. His other cantata introductions have only one movement. It is therefore highly likely if not certain that Bach, faced with a pressing deadline, turned to a three-movement piece that he had composed previously. Hence the sinfonia may well be performed independently of the cantata.
And what, pray tell, of the last piece on this disc, which bears the number BWV 1070? BWV 1066-69 are of course the four well-known Orchestral Suites (or “Overtures,“ as they are now sometimes called) by J. S. Bach. At one time it was thought that the G-Minor work might have been part of their group, but this view is now generally rejected.
So: what is this music like? Friedemann Bach is commonly said to have been the “most gifted“ of Bach's composer-sons. But the small size of his surviving output makes comparison with his two prolific brothers Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian difficult—if not impossible. While what I have heard of Friedemann's music is certainly accomplished, and seems to have a special charm of its own, I have always suspected that the application of the “most gifted“ label had more than a whiff of romanticism about it. Friedemann, after all, was a ne'er-do-well and apparently a drunk, a rebellious character who had trouble pleasing his employers and who died broke. This is the stuff of legend. Jazz is of course full of such legends. Until the appearance of the superb Sudhalter-Evans biography in 1974, the rather similar facts (and non-facts) of Bix Beider-becke's life led generations of jazz-lovers to distort the character of his very real greatness. Worse, the same sort of sentimentality led some older jazz musicians to claim that the unrecorded Emmett Hardy, who was born in the same year as Bix but died six years earlier, at age twenty-two to Bix's twenty-eight, was a greater cornetist than Bix.
The first movement of F. 67 begins as a double-dotted French Overture but keeps getting disrupted by contrasting faster sections; the Andante is delicate and mysterious; the third movement, which sounds for all the world like a finale, has some of the same delightfully conspiratorial quality as the Andante; surprisingly, the work concludes with a double minuet. F. 88 is the Pentecost cantata Ertönet, ihr seligen Völker, to which the little work included here forms the introduction. It is a gracious piece, in which a pair of oboes trade phrases with the strings. F. 65, though containing only two movements, is one of the “free-standing“ symphonies. The first movement is a grave, haunting Adagio, in which two flutes intertwine lines over the strings; the second movement, which uses some of the same material, is a vigorous fugue. F. 64, the three-movement cantata introduction discussed earlier, has a vigorous opening movement, a haunting slow movement, and a rather gay and active finale—yet all movements have something wistful about them that draws them together. In fact, as I listened and took notes, I found myself repeatedly having recourse to the word “wistful.“ Yet F. 91, written to introduce a cantata that celebrates Christ's resurrection (Wo geht die Lebensreise hin), is appropriately cheerful and bustling, filled with trumpet fanfares. Just so, F. 92, written for the Christmas cantata O Wunder, is appropriately dramatic. Whoever wrote BWV 1070, I'm sure it was not J. S. Bach, and the work has about it some of the same wistfulness
I found cropping up so often in the earlier pieces; so maybe it really is by Friedemann.
In any event, this is all interesting music, and it ought to be better known. The performances here are excellent, even better than those on the Cologne Chamber Orchestra disc that I reviewed in Fanfare 12:6—and that disc contained only F. 64, 65, and 67. So this new disc, which is also excellently recorded, is a must for anyone who wants to get closer to this rather mysterious composer.
William Youngren