W.F. Bach (1710-1784) was Johann Sebastian Bach’s first son, and reputedly his favorite. Needless to say, he received a top-notch musical education. Despite his considerable talents as a composer and performer, though, he was eclipsed by all of his younger composing brothers: Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, certainly, who even now are considered more important and played more frequently, but even by Johann Christoph Friedrich, who was more successful at the time, though nowadays W.F.’s work has a better reputation than J.C.F.’s now-obscure output. The difference, apparently, was that W.F. got along with employers even worse than his dad had.
In terms of compositional talent and imagination, however, especially in the realm of keyboard music, W.F. was just as interesting as C.P.E. and J.C., and Naxos’ survey of W.F.’s keyboard works (Robert Hill on vol. 1, Brown since then) has quickly achieved must-own status for fans of the period of transition between the Baroque and Classical eras. There are 13 (or 14; his catalogers differ) solo sonatas that have come down to us, of which four are heard here; we also get a five-movement suite (his only one), which is where W.F.’s style comes closest to that of J.S., though there are flashes of his father’s influence in the sonatas as well. That said, the sonatas are quite original, and generally more modern, full of chromaticism and quirky contrasts, but with more of an emphasis on counterpoint than had become fashionable.
Brown’s playing is expressive and highly inflected. For instance, she milks the slow movement of the Sonata in C major, BR A 5, for all it’s worth, which not makes for an effective contrast with the busy Presto that follows, but emphasizes the deep emotional impact that can so often be found in W.F.’s slow movements. Much more than a historical curiosity, this CD is full of riveting music that still impresses. W.F.’s unwillingness to compromise his style for the sake of popularity may have cost him in his lifetime, but pays off in the long run for modern listeners. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.