Although finally welcomed into the classical canon -- with some trepidation -- late in the 20th century, mostly among the cognoscenti, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach remains a bit of a cipher to many listeners, among the musical sons of Bach whom they've never heard anything from. The experts who love him attest to his high level of enigmatic eccentricity and his sense of stylistic separation from any other Bach son, and this echoes to some extent what Carl Friedrich Zelter remembered about him long after Bach's death; "As a composer he was driven by a need to be original, to distance himself from his father and brothers." But also, as Zelter continued, "he fell into fussiness, pedantry and futility." Harpsichordist Siegbert Rampe has made many fine discs for MDG and others; particularly of J.J. Froberger, but he has also made valuable contributions to the conversation about Molter, Peter Philips, J.S. Bach, and Wolfgang Mozart, whose complete keyboard works he recorded in 10 volumes. This disc contains as its showpiece the set of Polonaises, F. 12, that, along with his Sinfonia in D minor, F. 65, stands the best chance of gaining Bach son No. 1 entry into the mainstream of anything he produced. This is followed by a blazing account of Bach's Fantasia in D minor, F. 19, and his Sonata in E flat major, F. 5, as performed on a tangent piano made not long after W.F. Bach died; the rest of the music is heard on a harpsichord that is a rebuilt copy of an instrument W.F. Bach once owned, a gift from his father.
MDG's recording is terrific; full, loud, and fully inside these usually pretty quiet instruments. Moreover, the fantasia and the sonata are delicious, extraordinary performances; the fragile tone of the tangent piano is perfect for emphasizing the unexpected, quirky silences in Bach's sonata and Rampe's wild, free-for-all interpretation of the fantasia fully approximates the blinding speed at which Bach is said to have been capable of playing. The harpsichord in use, however, is a two-manual instrument and in some of the slow movements of the polonaises, Rampe elects to move the melody line from one manual to another in passagework. As Bach owned the original of this instrument, it might have been an irresistible temptation to try such an approach; however, in several instances it doesn't make a lot of musical sense and breaks up the lovely, enigmatic melody line Bach establishes in these pieces, one of his most important stylistic hallmarks. Also, in Rampe's booklet note he claims that these are the first recordings of these pieces ever made, a startling thing to say in view of the many that already exist, the first of the polonaises being made as far back as 1963. One even resorts to checking Rampe's original German texts to see if it has been mistranslated in some fashion, but the same claim is made there, too. Where has he been to miss, for example, the excellent Christophe Rousset recordings of these works?
While this disc includes among the best recordings ever of the Sonata in E flat and Fantasia in D minor, the polonaises -- which take up most of the disc -- cannot be said to be representative of Bach's music without acquaintance with other recorded versions that take a more straightforward approach. For those already at home with the Hallé Bach, this may serve as an interesting alternative, but for others coming to Bach for the first time, this may indeed seem to underscore his "fussiness, pedantry and futility" rather than other kinds of virtues.