The listing in the online edition of the New Grove Dictionary describes Wilhelm Friedemann Bach as "one of the major composers representing the period between Baroque and Classical composition". That’s quite a claim.
Friedemann was Johann Sebastian’s eldest son by his cousin and first wife, Maria Barbara, born in Weimar on St Cecilia’s Day (22 November), 1710. He appears to have been his father’s favourite; at any rate, Sebastian is said to have regarded him as the most talented of his sons, and took particular pains over his education, both musical and general. He helped him in other ways, too, for example by writing his letter of application for his very first post, as organist at the Sophienkirche, Dresden. Thereafter, details of his professional life are disappointingly mundane, in marked contrast to the dandyish self-confidence one glimpses from the much-reproduced portrait, made in mid-career before disappointment had begun to take its toll. His reputation as the most accomplished improviser organist of his time persisted until his death in 1784, but his public career never really matched his aspirations, let alone his father’s hopes. Posts in Halle, Brunswick, and, latterly, Berlin; sporadic publications; an opera that was begun, but never completed; the sale of his father’s autographs, necessitated by growing poverty, and the alienation of at least one influential patron due to an increasingly difficult character in later life. Many of the reports of his personal instability aren’t entirely reliable, and in some cases demonstrably biased; but almost inevitably, they’ve lent colour to subsequent discussions of the work.
Is this entirely realistic? It’s true that some of Friedemann’s music tends towards the facile character typical of the galant style of his day, as heard in some of the concertos, symphonies, and chamber music. But the same could at times be said of his brother Carl Philip Emmanuel (the “Berlin” Bach), and even more of his half-brother Johann Christian (the “London” Bach). It’s certainly true that Friedemann often veers between the learned style inherited from his father and a more contemporary immediacy of expression, sometimes within the same work. But that’s just it – the pieces in which this happens include some of his best music, for example the late Fantasias, several of which are included on the recitals by Maude Gratton (Mirare) and Anthony Spiri (Oehms Classics - download from Amazon / buy CD from Amazon). It’s possible to psychologize these sudden shifts in terms of conflicting tensions within the composer – on the one hand the desire to express his own time, and on the other a genuine interest in, and loyalty to, the old style embodied in the work of a father whom he must have revered. But in the case of the Fantasias, the conflict between the two idioms is so up-front that it can hardly have sprung from his unconscious; and as an exercise in self-exorcism, so obvious a mise-en-scène can hardly have been very effectual. In any case, these tensions, this sense of being on the cusp of a new expressive world whilst retaining a foot in older traditions, is perhaps more congenial to present-day sensibilities than it would have been a century or so ago, when the re-discovery of Friedemann’s music began in earnest. And so it’s probably easier to accept these pieces’ underlying premises nowadays, and to hear in them a playful imagination at work rather than the abortive expressions of (say) a strongly marked Oedipus complex. It’s possible, therefore, to exaggerate the unevenness of his surviving output (always remembering that a great deal has been lost). As was suggested before, Friedemann falls short far more often by playing safe than by taking risks; where he courts failure, he usually succeeds.
The “sensibility style” that pervades the mid-eighteenth century also frequently finds Friedemann at his best. Here, the set of 12 Polonaises takes pride of place, both in the discography and historically, for it’s the one work that ensured that his name was never entirely lost sight of. (They were published 35 years after his death, in 1819, and had circulated widely in manuscript before then.) They are difficult to sum up, but their unaffected (but deeply affecting) expression no doubt explains their popularity at the beginning of the Romantic period. Friedemann’s melodic gift is considerable, and at its best, superior to that of Philip Emmanuel. As proof that the Polonaises aren’t a one-off in this respect, try the set of four cantatas, most likely composed during his time at Halle, issued on two CDs by Das Kleine Konzert in the late 1990s (Capriccio - Amazon for download / Amazon for CD). Each one of them contains at least one exquisite large-scale aria da capo, in which a solo instrument dialogues with the singer, and seeks to outdo the human voice. There’s a poignancy to Friedemann in a minor key that’s like pulling on a sore tooth. Perhaps it’s not surprising that he’s not capable of sustaining such a level of intensity over an entire cantata; that’s what makes the much smaller-scale Polonaises so successful. To return to these, there are at least four complete recordings, of which the most interesting is the one clavichord by Paul Simmonds (London Independent Records - Amazon) and on fortepiano by Robert Hill (Naxos - Classics Online / Amazon). These are very nicely contrasted: Simmonds suggests the pieces’ underlying melancholy and seeming indecision, whereas Hill shows them to be crafted with surprising toughness and clarity. There’s a choice of alternatives on fortepiano (Harald Hoeren, CPO) and harpsichord (Siegbert Rampe, D&G - Amazon), though these are less compelling interpretatively. Incidentally, on the subject of instruments, the aforementioned recital by Anthony Spiri (which contains no Polonaises) is also instructive, for it demonstrates convincingly that Friedemann’s music speaks just as eloquently on a Steinway D.
Another set that’s definitely worth hearing is the six flute duets, the last two of which date from Friedemann’s last years. These have been beautifully done by Barthold Kuijken and Marc Hantaï (Accent - Amazon), both of whom, like the composer, are members of sets of famous musical siblings. If the thought of an hour’s music for unaccompanied flutes seems daunting, the composer’s inventiveness ultimately carries the day. As with the best chamber music, one often has the impression that there are more flutes playing than just two. Come to think of it, much of Friedemann’s best work comes in sets: the eight fugues (composed before 1778) were nearly as popular as the Polonaises, in fact. The last of them, in F minor, takes a well-worn cliché, the descending chromatic fourth, and, by immediately adding a countersubject, sets off on a tortuous, very involving series of episodes. The surviving music for organ is currently available on a single CD (Wolfgang Baumgratz, Christophorus); tragically, no doubt, it represents a tiny fraction of what he must have written for the instrument. Baumgratz plays on a magnificent late-Baroque instrument.
For many years, the most rounded anthology devoted to Friedemann was by Guy Penson (Ricercar, RIC 051043), who cleverly juxtaposed the aforementioned F minor fugue with one of Friedemann’s most polished and ‘pre-classical’ sonatas, in B-flat. This last piece is well worth hearing and hasn’t been widely recorded since, if at all. There’s also a winning set of variations, and a selection of Polonaises. Most recently, and besides the complete recordings of the Polonaises, Maude Gratton’s anthology (Mirare - Amazon) combines Sonatas, Fantasias, Polonaises again, and Fugues in a brilliant display that follows the music’s twists and turns with alternating confidence and uncertainty. Perhaps it’s currently the best place to start exploring this unsettling tercentenarian. The hope is that 2010 will bring fresh opportunities to hear other facets of his output, much of which remains to be recorded. Perhaps his compositions can gain for him a measure of the esteem that he himself enjoyed only as a performer.