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CD: Soundboard

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

Johann Mattheson is one of the most frequently quoted writers about music in history. It is not often in programme notes for discs with German music of the 18th century that he is not mentioned. He was a productive writer, whether it be about performance practice or matters of style and taste. He was also a keen observer of the musical developments in his time. In his writings he didn't hide his aesthetic preferences. Whereas a contemporary like Johann Sebastian Bach made frequent use of counterpoint, Mattheson stated unequivocally that the very foundation of music was melody.
As so often happens with writers on music who were also composers, they are frequently quoted but their music is largely ignored. There seems to be a kind of prejudice that writers - in particular music theorists - can't be good composers. Mattheson has fallen victim to this prejudice, and so have the likes of Johann Josef Fux and 'Padre' Martini. But if you listen to their compositions there is no reason to look down on them as if they are just dull illustrations of music theory. Recent recordings of the oeuvre of Fux and Martini provide evidence of that.
Mattheson's oeuvre as a composer - especially a composer of vocal music - hasn't really been explored yet. Some years ago I had the rare opportunity to attend a performance of one of his operas. It was not staged, but even so it was enough to prove that he has a lot to offer. It is a great shame that his operas and oratorios are almost completely ignored. His keyboard works have fared a little better. Recently the Brazilian harpsichordist Cristiano Holz recorded a selection of the same collection performed here - a disc I haven't heard yet. In the late 1970s the Canadian harpsichordist Bradford Tracey recorded four suites from this set. And Vladimir Ruso made a recording of 'Die wohlklingende Fingersprache' of 1735. Even so Colin Booth has done us a great favour by recording the complete set of suites of 1714.
The collection of 1735 contains no fewer than twelve fugues, clear evidence that, with all his preference for the 'modern taste' in which the melody was dominant, Mattheson didn't consider counterpoint as something of the past. In the Suite No. 12 from the collection of 1714 he includes three dances from a suite by Georg Böhm (1661-1733), whom Colin Booth in his programme notes calls a 'contemporary', but who stylistically belongs to a different era. Mr Booth is right in interpreting this 'quotation' as a kind of tribute to Böhm. From his writings we know that Mattheson had a sharp pen and sometimes vehemently criticised composers and performers but he also was quite respectful to masters from the past. For instance he praised the 17th-century Italian keyboard composer Michelangelo Rossi, and very much regretted that so little of Buxtehude's harpsichord works had been published.
These particular movements by Böhm are not quoted unchanged: Mattheson adapts them to his own taste, and he adds three 'doubles' to one of the movements, the sarabande. This practice was quite common at the time: what Mattheson does here differs little from how Bach arranged Italian instrumental concertos for keyboard or how he turned Pergolesi's Stabat Mater into a setting of Psalm 51.
Even so there is a difference in style between the Böhm movements and Mattheson's own compositions. In his suites the upper part is dominant. Here we see how he put his own article of faith that melody was the foundation of music into practice. And he certainly could write good melodies as this collection shows. Examples are the gigue from the Suite No. 4 and the allemandes from Suites 6 and 7. But there is also room for expression. You can hear this in the allemande from the Suite No. 3 and the sarabande from Suite No. 4. The menuet from that same suite contains some harmonic surprises as well.
In order to appreciate this music one needs to listen to it with the right attitude. Too often music by Bach's contemporaries suffers from comparison to the standard set by Bach. Nothing against Bach, but this does his contemporaries few favours. Bach himself wasn't so picky: he could appreciate music of a more modern taste than his own. After all he performed the St Mark Passion by Reinhard Keiser - another representative of the modern taste - and subscribed to Telemann's 'Paris Quartets'.
If this kind of repertoire is to be appreciated one needs a really good performance which fully explores the virtues of the repertoire. It is not the first time I have listened to a recording by Colin Booth. Both here and in the German magazine Toccata I have reviewed several of his discs and I have always judged them favourably. This production is no exception: I have nothing but praise for his interpretations. He captures the character of every single piece very well, and the peculiarities of each movement do not pass unnoticed. The little surprises here and there - for instance in the menuet of the Suite No. 4 - come off well. Fortunately he does not rub our noses in them or try to convince us that this is really good music. That is not necessary at all: his differentiated, lively and expressive playing reveals the qualities of Mattheson's suites.
Colin Booth uses two instruments of his own making. They are both beautiful sounding harpsichords, and the alternation in sound between the instruments during the recording increases the variety. Apart from a slight background noise - which is probably only noticeable when listening to the discs with a headphone - the recorded sound is good. The programme notes are informative and to the point, and the whole production is of a high standard. I would have liked the timings of the suites and their movements to have been given, though. Apparently you can't have it all.
This set which broadens our musical horizon by showing that fine music was written 'in the shadow of the masters'.
Johan van Veen

see also review by Brian Wilson



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