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Johann MATTHESON (1681-1764)
Suite No.1 in D minor (1714) [1638]
Suite No.12 in F minor (extracts) (1714) [8:00]
Suite No.11 (sarabande) in C major (1714) [2:22]
Suite No. 5 (Air and Doubles) in C minor (1714) [6:12]
Suite No. 4 in G minor (extracts) (1714) [13:15]
Suite No. 6 in E flat minor (1714) [12:27]
Suite No. 9 in G minor (1714) [15:05]
Cristiano Holtz (harpsichord)
rec. January 2006, Oud-Katholieke Kerk, Delft
RAMÉE RAM 0605 [74:35]

Johann Mattheson was both a prodigy and a polymath. He was giving organ recitals before he reached the age of ten. As a child he also acquired a competence on several other instruments, including the violin, oboe, flute and viola da gamba. His abilities as a singer led to performances with the Hamburg Opera at the age of twelve. He went on to study law while also being active as an opera singer and a conductor, a harpsichordist and organist, and a composer. As an author he translated a range of works from both French and English. Extraordinarily, he translated Defoe’s Moll Flanders within a year of its English publication; he translated essays from the Spectator and the Tatler; he prepared a German version of Richardson’s huge (and hugely influential) novel Pamela. He became secretary to Sir John Wich, the English ambassador in Hamburg. He was sent on some diplomatic missions. He spent some years as Kapellmeister of Hamburg Cathedral. In 1722 he established the journal Critica musica, the first music periodical in German, and one of the first in any language. His 1713 book Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre raised fundamental questions about the ‘new’ directions which music might take and stirred up much controversy. Later works included two treatises on keyboard playing, published in 1731 (the Grosse General Bass-Schule) and 1735 (the Kleine General Bass-Schule) and Der volkommene Capellmeister (1739), a book of guidance for those occupying such a role which also offers some important ideas on music’s power over the emotions. His Grundlage einer Ehren-Pforte (1740) is a remarkable encyclopaedia of enduring interest for its information on many of his contemporaries. His own autobiography has been edited and published in modern times – as Johann Mattheson: Lebenssbeschreibung des Hamburgers Musikers, Schriftstellers und Diplomaten, edited by Hans Joachim Marx, 1982. Marx plausibly argues that Mattheson should be regarded as one of "the most significant representatives of the musical and intellectual life of his time".

Mattheson was not without a very high opinion of his own abilities and this led him into many a conflict. Charles Burney, in his Present State of Music in Germany … has a revealing account (revealing whether or not it is literally true or not) of a quarrel between Mattheson and the young Handel (Mattheson was three years older) during the years that handle spent in Hamburg. The account is based on that which Mattheson published in his Grundlage:

"About this time there was performed there [Hamburg] an opera composed by Mattheson, called Cleopatra, in which he acted the part of Anthony himself, and Handel played the harpsichord; but Mattheson being accustomed, upon the death of Anthony, which happens early in the piece, to take the harpsichord, in the character of composer, Handel refused to indulge his vanity, by relinquishing to him this post; which occasioned so violent a quarrel between them, that at going out of the house, Mattheson gave him a slap on the face, upon which both immediately drew their swords, and a duel ensued, in the market-place, before the door of the opera-house: luckily, the sword of Mattheson was broke against a metal button upon Handel’s coat, which put an end to the combat, and they were soon after reconciled."

He may have had the upper hand in a duel (or so he implies), but Mattheson was not, unsurprisingly, Handel’s superior when it came to composition. His music – on the evidence of these suites and individual movements taken from the two volumes of his Pièces de Clavecin, published in two volumes in 1714 (in London), and described on its title pages as "consistant des Ouvertures, Preludes, Fugues, Allemandes, Courentes, Sarabandes, Gigues, et Aires" – is no more than competent and somewhat short of the spark of real individuality. But it is very competent, good, professional keyboard music of its time, and makes for very pleasant listening. Adopting the He adopts the essential musical strategies of the French suite, initially evolved by the lutenists of the French school, and to some extent formalised by harpsichordists such as Louis Coperin and Chambonnieres; the work of a number of his German predecessors had, by 1714, made it a natural choice for a composer such as Mattheson. His well-educated writing shows both a sure grasp of harpsichord technique and the instrument’s possibilities, as well as a magpie-like ability to draw on French, Italian and German models alike. His handling of counterpoint is generally impressive and if his dance movements don’t always have the greatest vivacity, they are never actually dull.

His slow(ish) movements are often particularly fine - as in the sarabande from the first suite or the allemande from the twelfth suite.

Cristiano Holtz plays Mattheson’s music with understanding and with a convincing grasp of idiom. He plays an instrument made in 1989 by Bruce Kennedy, based on an instrument of 1702/4 by the Berlin instrument maker Michael Mietke, of whose instruments we know Bach to have been fond. In scale and sound it seems perfectly suited to Mattheson’s suites.

My only reservation is that Holtz chooses to play only three complete suites, and to represent three others by single movements or short sequences of movements. Gustave Boisdheux’s booklet notes suggest that this choice was "based on the spirit of the suite itself: informal and originally for domestic consumption", but the evidence of what is to be heard on the CD itself is that the movements of Mattheson’s suites generally sound better when heard in the context that he designed for them.

This relatively minor reservation doesn’t seriously detract from my pleasure in an interesting and rewarding recording. Discussing Mattheson’s musical theories, Francis Sparshott (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 56, 1998) observed that "Mattheson is endlessly fascinating". The same can’t quite be said for his actual music – not, at any rate, when one listens to it in the context provided by such near contemporaries as Bach, Handel and Domenico Scarlatti. But it is plenty good enough to retain the attention of ear and mind throughout a well recorded CD such as this.

Glyn Pursglove


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