Léon Berben

Wilhelm Friedmann Bach: Claviermusik, Vol. 1

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Although the music of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach straddles the Baroque and Classical periods, his keyboard works are more frequently performed on the harpsichord rather than on a fortepiano or modern piano. Compared to the contemporary music of Haydn, Mozart, and even C.P.E. Bach, there is something old-fashioned about W.F.'s compositions that suit the older instrument. Léon Berben's first volume of W.F. Bach's keyboard music contains several premiere recordings that clearly demonstrate those qualities. The selections span Bach's entire career as a composer, but they all seem to sit more comfortably toward the Baroque era. They are highly ornamented and use forms that J.S. Bach would have recognized, for example the Menuett with its variations or the solo concerto. The Overture in E flat really harkens back to earlier times and sounds. Even the sonatas have a stateliness to them that is given added elegance by the instrument Berben is using. He has a facility with the music and instrument that at times recalls the incredible dexterity and speed of Gustav Leonhardt, especially in the Fantasia in E minor. That work alternates showy runs with more pensive episodes and includes some of Bach's quirkier key modulations near its end. All of these pieces, even the more animated and dance-like movements, have an air of reflection or philosophizing about them, seeming to bridge the cerebral qualities of his father's music with the more transparently expressive music of his brother C.P.E. Bach. Berben makes this point well without overdoing any rubato, and the only truly obvious use of harpsichord stops to change timbre and mood is in the unauthenticated Fantasia in D minor. It's nice to hear a wider variety of W.F. Bach's keyboard music than just his set of Polonaises and to hear what sets him apart from the rest of his family and contemporaries. It will be interesting to know what Berben finds for the next volumes as well.

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