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BACH Family & J.J. Quantz: Viola – Roger Myers – Notos

BACH Family & J.J. Quantz: Viola – Roger Myers – Notos 001- 59:39 (7/24/17) ****:

(Roger Myers, Baroque Viola/ Celine Frisch; Harpsichord)

Late 18th century works by Bach’s sons, featuring the newly-arrived viola in full flight.

In the liner notes of this new release, Viola: Music of the Bach Family, we are told that C.P.E. Bach said of his father: “as the greatest expert and judge of Harmony, he liked to play the viola.” It is a perplexing comment. What is, after all, the connection between this instrument and Bach’s harmonic genius? And why does the instrument not feature in Bach’s admittedly small body of chamber music? Instead, there are three sonatas for its older cousin, the viola da gamba. Nowhere else does Great Judge of Harmony see fit to employ this instrument as a solo voice, although it makes an auspicious debut in the Concertos of Brandenburg.

This recording presents works or adaptations for viola by three sons of Bach, as well as J.J. Quantz, the composer who edged out C.P.E. Bach at the court of Frederick the Great as lead composer. One work by J.S. Bach is included, perhaps as a reference point, illustrating the relative degree of departure of Gallant era composers from the singular standards erected by Bach Senior.  It was C.P.E himself who said of his father, “nobody nowadays can write melodies like Old Bach.” He was referring to the striking adagios of the BW 1017-1023 Violin Sonatas, works beyond compare, and not only in terms of the 18th-century chamber music.

The brilliant melodies of these composers, their sheer virtuosity and boisterous vitality, are readily on display. If the music lacks the gravitas and harmonic weight of the old style, we nonetheless welcome it on its own terms. The piece by Quantz is a world premier. It derives from an original for flute and breathes the elegant air of the Weimar Court, where the French aesthetic of supreme refinement was nicely realized in showy pieces played by the Kaiser himself (with C.P.E. Bach on the harpsichord). It begins with a tender Amorevole, elegantly stated on the baroque viola of Mr. Myers. There is just enough of the old style in the harmonic tapestry to suggest that this too could be one of Bach’s sons. The Allegro and Vivace offer vigorous exercises without a hint of shadow or introversion.

The longest piece, Sonata in G minor, by C.P.E., is likewise florid and bustling. The exception is the Larghetto. It seems for a moment as if the viola and harpsichord are trying to strike up the kind of dialog invented by Haydn but lack the harmonic imagination. Instead, they engage in some mutual lyrical flattery and bask in the glow of the ravishing 1763 Guadagnini instrument. As far Allegros go, no one can top this Bach, who was the inspiration for a young Mozart, who claimed “he is Father of us all.”

In the Largo from the Concerto in E flat major by JCF Bach, the apple has fallen even further from the tree. The viola shines warmly here, but the Rococo theme is too much jelly on the toast. The harpsichord trips along beside the loquacious and earnest voice of the lyrical shepherd unable to steer the topic away from obsessive gushing. Things look up with the Aria from Cantata BWV 5 which unfolds briskly in a moto perpetuo, the harpsichord textures both thicker and faster moving. In the end, it feels like an odd choice, though. Certainly it does not showcase the lyrical powers of the viola.

The real treat arrives with the substantial WF Bach Sonata in C minor. It stuns in many regards not least owing to level of virtuosity, with many tricky double-stops and cascading runs of great intricacy. But even more interesting is the living legacy of the Great Bach which lives stronger in Wilhelm Friedemann than in any of the other sons. I was duly impressed by the frolicsome harpsichord accompaniment to the Allegro scherzando, which possessed some of the jarring dissonance of the weird cadenzas in the Brandenburg concertos. Celine Frisch gives an outstanding account of this instrument, which sounds resplendent; this is a very well-recorded outing. There is a burst of low-register growling and knotty interplay that stretches the dominant chords to the breaking point. It is stirring and dramatic, funny even, but indifferent to the pretty refinements of the Gallant era style. The final Scherzando caps off the high spirits with even more flamboyant thrust and parry.  The harpsichord seems the conventional Baroque straight-man to the bold declarations of this newly-arrived solo instrument, which surely makes one of its definitive statements of  18th- century literature on this handsome piece.

Roger Myers is a marvel throughout, and the Harpsichord by Michael Mietke (2013), skillfully played by Celine Frisch, is a perfect foil for the rare instrument. This is a recording not to be missed by Early Music fans. The liner notes add scholarly background, albeit in a font too small to be read by the unaided eye.

—Fritz Balwit

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