Salzburger Hofmusik

Johann Christian Bach: Six Sonatas, Op. 16

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Salzburger Hofmusik is a period performance group that specializes in music of the late eighteenth century. It is led by Wolfgang Brünner, who performs on a copy of a 1790 Anton Walter fortepiano in this recording of Johann Christian Bach's Six Sonatas, Op. 16. Published in 1779, this was a popular set of two-movement piano sonatas designed for amateurs in that an optional line of accompaniment is supplied for either flute or violin. The style of the music is lightweight, casual and melodically centered, but not insubstantial -- in certain transitional passages some of the harmonic ideas of Bach's famous father are alluded to, and as a whole the set will not sound alien to those listeners who are well acquainted with the work of Mozart. This music may strike some listeners as being rather superficial, but for those familiar with the conventions of classical period style it will come as no surprise and it is really quite pleasurable. Certain individual movements are especially beauteous in themselves, for example the "Pastorale: Non tanto allegro" from the Sonata No. 4 in A major, which perfectly evokes an outdoor scene, perhaps children playing or portrait subjects posing quietly in a Gainsborough-like setting.

Bach provides the option of having either flute or violin realize the accompaniment, an eighteenth century conceit that is wholly alien to contemporary performers used to working in a solo context with the keyboard providing the background element. This Salzburger Hofmusik disc, recorded in 1996, was the first made of Bach's Opus 16 set, and the group decided to democratize it through assigning half of the sonatas to violinist Christine Busch and the others to flautist Karl Kaiser. In two recordings of this same work made by others since then, only the flute is employed, and for good reason; the violin, at least in this recording, is overkill. Worse is that violinist Christine Busch utilizes a period instrument that has a scrawny, wobbly tone that sounds like one of the old violins that are heard in coin-operated Violanos one might encounter in a museum. Busch also sounds impatient in her second-banana role and tries to make more of her part than is actually there. Karl Kaiser's flute, by comparison, is warm, sensitive, and fits its role as partner to the fortepiano like a glove. CPO's recording is very good, made in a small room with a short decay time that matches the sort of environment in which these works would have been commonly heard in their era. The upshot is that in CPO's Johann Christian Bach: Six Sonatas Op. 16, there is exactly one-half of a good album here.

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