Tuesday 26 April 2022

The intriguing tale of what came next: Steven Devine explores the music of Bach's talented pupil, Johann Ludwig Krebs

Johann Ludwig Krebs (1713-1780) - Keyboard work, volumes 1 & 2; Steven Devine; Resonus Classics

Johann Ludwig Krebs (1713-1780) - Keyboard works, volumes 1 & 2; Steven Devine; Resonus Classics
Reviewed 25 April 2022, (★★★★)

The music of one of Johann Sebastian Bach's finest pupils reveals itself to be stylistically diverse and intriguing, and receives powerful advocacy from Steven Devine

If you have heard the name Johann Ludwig Krebs before it is probably as a footnote; he was one of Johann Sebastian Bach's pupils. Born into a musical family (his father also studied with Bach), Krebs was sent to Leipzig to study, including with Bach. As regards organ playing, Krebs was unrivalled next to Bach, yet he never managed to achieve a significant post, having to content himself with engagements at smaller courts. For the final 14 years of his life he was court organist at Altenburg (home of the Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, one of the rather confusing group of Saxon duchies that kept being subdivided and combined).

Stylistically, Krebs spans the Baroque and post-Baroque era and his music is fascinating to listen to and compare to that of Bach's sons. All had the rigorous training from Bach, but each went a different way. Krebs seems to have trodden the middle way, as compared to the more extreme reactions of CPE Bach, JC Bach and WF Bach. Perhaps, because Krebs was always working at smaller, conservative courts, his style had to reflect what his employers wanted. And yet, despite never quite achieving the perfect posting in terms of satisfaction and financial rewards, he wrote a remarkable amount of music.

Harpsichordist Steven Devine is currently recording Krebs' harpsichord works for Resonus Classics and the first two volumes have been issued (with four more planned). Volume One contains the Partita in A minor, six fugues and the Concerto in G major 'in the Italian style', whilst Volume two contains the Overture in the French style, the Partita in B flat major and the Sonata in A minor

On both discs, Devine plays a double manual harpsichord by Colin Booth from 2000 after a single manual by Johann Christophe Fleischer (Hamburg, 1710); performing at Baroque pitch and in a temperament from 1691. I include all these details because, for me, they are important as regards the sound. I have to confess, first off, that I have a love/hate relationship with harpsichords on disc, but here the instrument has a lovely clarity to it, not too much sound of the action and with a nicely centred tone, so that we hear the notes and the pitches rather than the harpsichord quality.

Krebs, music is full of style and imagination, and often great technical challenge. Yet he never writes in one particular manner, and what comes over is the diversity of his writing. We move from the pure Baroque to more mixed styles including a tiny Sonata in volume two that seems to look forward. Published in 1765 (but probably from a few years earlier), this is work which seems to evoke sympathy for the advanced styles of composers like CPE Bach and JC Bach. 

A snapshot of Krebs' style comes in the partitas. On these discs, Devine has recorded two (in A minor and in B flat major). Krebs in fact wrote six, but only three survive. They are large works, the A minor partita has nine movements, the B flat major has ten, and what we notice from these discs is Krebs fondness of long strings of movements. Within the partitas we move from Bach inspired structural chromaticism to elements that would have not come amiss in the music of JC Bach or CPE Bach. And yet, and yet, the whole seems to preserve a sense of sensible balance, as if Krebs is saying to his audience (the Prince in Altenburg or whoever) that whilst we can go visiting strange lands, we can always come home again. It does not seem clear when Krebs wrote the partitas, probably in the 1740s when a lot of his large-scale harpsichord pieces date from. This was when he was working as an organist at a church in Zwickau. He did not move to Altenburg till after the death of Bach (an important date for the transition from Baroque to post-Baroque), and in fact tried unsuccessfully to become Bach's successor. 

Yet he was also publishing Suites as well as the Overtures and Sonatas, there is a sort of something for everyone feel to his output. Both the Overture in the French Style and the Concerto in the Italian Style display a secure knowledge of Bach's writing in this manner, yet the way Krebs write for the keyboard seems to reflect more modern tastes and in his admirable booklet notes Steven Devine cites Krebs frequent use of octave writing and virtuosic hand crossing. Similarly the little fugues on the first disc display a knowledge of Bach's fugue style, yet they wander into places that Bach never went and some are positively entertaining in a manner entirely unfamiliar from Bach's music.

This is music that can be listened to for its academic interest, the desire to explore the way composers moved from the Baroque to the Classical in the context of the sometimes rather conservative work of the smaller German courts. But the combination of Devine's advocacy and the sheer imagination of Krebs' music means that the discs are a simple delight to listen to in their own right.

Johann Ludwig Krebs (1713-1780) - Keyboard works, volume 1
Partita in A minor (1st edition, 1743), Fugue in C major, Fugue in E major, Fugue in F major, Fugue in F minor, Fugue in G major, Fugue in A minor, Concerto in G major 'in the Italian style'

Johann Ludwig Krebs (1713-1780) - Keyboard works, volume 2
Overture 'in the French style', Partita in B flat major, Sonata in A minor

Steven Devine (harpsichord)
RESONUS RES10287, RES10300 2CDs (sold separately) [72:00, 77:17]

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