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CD: Soundboard

Johann MATTHESON (1681-1764)
The Twelve Suites of 1714, Harmonisches Denckmal
Suite No. 1 in d minor* [13:41]
Suite No. 2 in A** [12:37]
Suite No. 3 in D* [9:47]
Suite No. 4 in g minor** [13:34]
Suite No. 5 in c minor* [13:55]
Suite No. 6 in E-flat** [12:41]
Suite No. 7 in B-flat** [10:48]
Suite No. 8 in d minor* [10:56]
Suite No. 9 in g minor** [14:27]
Suite No. 10 in e minor* [12:06]
Suite No. 11 in C** [12:12]
Suite No. 12 in f minor* [16:53]
Colin Booth (* reproduction Vater harpsichord, 1738; ** reproduction Vaudry harpsichord, 1681)
rec. * Bristol, April, 2007; ** August, 2007, Westbury sub Mendip, Somerset, UK.  DDD.
Booklet with notes in English and German
SOUNDBOARD SBCD208 [76:06 + 77:19]
Experience Classicsonline

Every recording that I have heard from Colin Booth has been enlightening.  His recordings of William Croft (SBCD991) and Peter Phillips (The English Exile, SBCD992 – see review) and his Restoration CD (CD Classics CDK1002 – see review) showed what I was missing in thinking of certain composers solely in terms of their vocal and choral output and the present recording has shown me how wrong I was to think of Johann Mattheson as a rather boring musical theorist, author of a worthy treatise on the role of the thorough-bass. 
I’m not yet prepared to rank the keyboard music of this contemporary of Bach and Handel and friend of the latter until they fell out over who was to play the continuo in Mattheson’s opera Cleopatra – a story which the notes in the booklet present in a more interesting manner than it is related in works such as the Oxford Companion to Music – on the same footing as theirs, but I certainly enjoyed hearing it on this 2-CD set.  If you expected something dry and academic, you should be very pleasantly surprised.
Full marks for spotting a gap in the catalogue.  There are 2-CD recordings of the twelve sonatas entitled Der brauchbare Virtuoso on the Classico label (Trio Corelli, CLASSCD496497) and on Alpha (Diana Baroni, etc.,  ALPHA035) and a single-CD selection from the Harmonisches Denckmal (Ramee RAM605 – see review), together with single items on various collections, but no-one has previously recorded the whole of the 1714 publication, to the best of my knowledge.
Colin Booth included a single Air in g by Mattheson on his earlier CD Dark Harpsichord Music, a CD which my colleague Johan van Veen found too uniformly introspective, though he thought “Colin Booth ... an excellent harpsichordist, who is able to capture the character of the pieces on the programme well” (SBCD203 – see review).  Now he offers us more of that excellent keyboard technique in a much more varied programme – no problems here with uniformity of theme, with a variety of dance movements in a range of keys, major and minor, and moods.  Don’t expect even the slow movements of the minor-key suites to sound proto-romantic – ‘introspective’, ‘thoughtful’ and ‘wistful’ would be more appropriate epithets than ‘soulful’, and nothing here is remotely lugubrious.
Modern listeners will appreciate the variety of styles and playing, though they are unlikely to be able to differentiate the various Italian, French and German styles: even those of us who enjoy baroque music often wonder what all the fuss was about between the Italian and French styles favoured by Lullistes and Rameauistes respectively, and why Couperin had to ‘reconcile’ the two styles.  Just enjoy the music – there’s plenty to enjoy here, though I wouldn’t recommend playing all twelve suites in one go, as Handel is reputed to have done the moment that the music came into his hands.
To add to the variety and to the interest of the recording, Booth employs two reproduction harpsichords of his own manufacture: both are fairly small instruments with 4’ and 8’ pitch.  There isn’t a great deal of difference between them in timbre, but I did slightly prefer those suites where the Vaudry was employed, especially for its ability to employ the octave (4’) register as a solo stop.  Neither instrument would probably be suitable for, say, Scarlatti, but they are both very appropriate instruments for early-18th-century North Germany.
It must be helpful to be playing instruments made by yourself.  Be that as it may, Booth plays with a secure technique throughout and varies his touch according to the style of each individual dance movement.  To take the Air which he performed on that earlier recording as an example, here (CD2, track 14) its mood is not only well captured but it can be more fully appreciated after the lively and nimble-fingered performance of the preceding Courante II – I’m listening to it as I type these words and my fingers are falling over themselves in an effort to keep up with the playing – and the jaunty performance of the following Loure. The Soundboard website offers the opening Allemande from Suite No.3 (CD1, tr.13) as a sample – it will give you some idea of the quality of the playing, though not of the recording, even if you listen through decent headphones.
The recording is good – just a trifle too close for my taste, but it’s not a serious problem.  Like everything else about this set, it’s very professional.  We’ve come to expect high standards from the larger independents – already, in early January, I have three strong candidates for Recording of the Year, one each from Hyperion, Gimell and Linn – but it’s good to see that the smaller guys like Soundboard can hold their own, too.
The notes and documentation are very informative – but may we have the composer’s dates and the timings of tracks and works in future, please – it took me a very long time to work these out: apologies for any erroneous maths.  Those with absolute pitch (not me) would also probably have liked to know the pitch and tuning of each instrument.
If you haven’t yet heard Colin Booth’s Croft and Phillips recordings, especially the latter, go for them first, or his Restoration CD.  Once you’ve heard those and appreciated his playing, I’m sure that you’ll want to move on to this Mattheson set.  On second thoughts, when last I looked, it was being offered as a 2-for-1 bargain, so you may want to snap it up quickly before the offer ends.
Brian Wilson


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