The keyboard music of Johann Christian Bach, once thought the domain of specialists and its composer viewed as one of classical music's "almost-did-wells," has been gaining some traction in the repertoire. The linchpin in this unexpected development is the proximity of Bach's style to that of Wolfgang Mozart; although it is historically clear that Bach was the one who influenced Mozart and not the other way around, superficially their piano sonatas are almost stylistically interchangeable. Bach's set of Six Sonatas Op. 17, appeared in Paris in 1774 as his Op. 12, but the pieces themselves had been around longer than that and were certainly among a number of pieces Bach played to the young Mozart in London in the 1760s. For anyone who likes the sound of Mozart's piano sonatas -- and there are many who do -- J.C. Bach's Op. 17 will elicit similar satisfaction.
Pianist Alberto Nosè has won top honors at a number of international competitions, such as the 1999 Busoni Prize, the 2000 Chopin Prize in Warsaw, and the 2004 Long-Thibaud Competition in Paris; prior to this release, however, his recording career was mainly limited to releases marketed only in Italy. Naxos' Johann Christian Bach: Six Keyboard Sonatas, Op. 17, marks Nosè's first appearance on internationally released discs and the choice of this particular work for Nosè's debut in this context is both a classy and commendable one. Nosè plays Bach's sonatas on a modern Steinway and at one time there was a school of thought that dictated only the fortepiano could deliver the proper sonority that suited such works. Nosè's interpretations not only points up the flaws in this received wisdom, but brings Bach's music perhaps closer than ever to the context in which we commonly hear Mozart's keyboard music sound. By virtue of recording this work, Nosè enters into direct competition with Anthony Spiri's recording of this set for Arte Nova, also played on a modern grand piano. In some ways, Spiri's recording remains a bit more satisfying given his profound attention to and crisp execution of the various kinds of ornaments in Bach's music, elements that Nosè reserves the right to accept or reject as he sees fit, and does not take especial pains to emphasize. But one could argue that Nosè makes an even better case for performing J.C. Bach on the modern grand than does Spiri; his touch is pearly, and his tone well rounded and generous. A direct comparison reveals two outstanding recordings with no clear winner; however, if one is looking to experience the J.C. Bach Op. 17 sonatas, Naxos' Johann Christian Bach: Six Keyboard Sonatas, Op. 17, is an excellent choice and will well reward one's interest.