The booklet notes to this release make interesting reading. American fortepianist Susan Alexander-Max reveals that this was initially intended to be an album dedicated to the music of Johann Christian Bach. J.C. Bach was the youngest of J.S. Bach's surviving sons and was probably more famous and popularly successful than the rest of his brothers put together. After extending his education in Italy he established himself as “the London Bach”. He won fame throughout Europe as a leading exponent of the new and fashionable gallant style of music, sweeping aside the fussiness of the Baroque period with a sleek new Classicism. It helped that he was also a keyboard virtuoso – hardly surprising given that he would have heard his clan of older siblings playing the 48 while he was still in utero.
However, as The Music Collection rehearsed what had always been thought to be two of J.C. Bach's Op.7 concertos for keyboard for the recording, doubts began to set in about their provenance. Putting aside the difference in instrumentation—the addition of a viola which is absent in the Op.13 concertos—there was something about the music that “did not feel or sound like Johann Christian”. A little digging revealed that these two concertos have been recently and reliably attributed to a different Bach: to Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, three years J.C. Bach's senior and, like their older half brother Carl Philipp Emanuel, a court musician in Germany.
The Music Collection—founded by Alexander-Max for the promotion of 18th and early 19th Century fortepiano repertoire – recorded the J.C.F. Bach concertos anyway; they bookend the J.C. Bach concertos, making for an attractive program of contrasting styles. All four concertos are certainly pleasing. Much of the interest in each piece comes from the keyboard's elaboration of thematic material stated by the strings, and it is the way in which this is handled that marks the difference between the brothers' styles. When their concertos are played one after the other the greater liquidity of the London Bach's melodic invention, his lighter touch and his more winning charm are evident.
In all four pieces the scoring is very economical with only one instrument per part in the tiny, eminently practical “orchestra” that accompanies the soloist—though the J.C. Bach concertos allow for optional winds which are not employed here. To prevent textures thinning out, the fortepiano provides a continuo when not spinning the solo line.
The performances are commendable, bringing the scores to life with due observance of period performance practice. Susan Alexander-Max shapes her solo lines with grace, ease and intelligence. I enjoyed her recent Clementi disc immensely, and her playing is just as magical here. I would be interested in hearing a bit about her instrument. It sounds like a modern replica fortepiano – sweet-toned and supple. The warm and intimate Naxos recording certainly presents it and the accompanying strings in their best light. A delightful disc.—Tim Perry