Johann Mattheson is one of the most frequently quoted
writers about music in history. It is not often in programme
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
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
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'.
see also review by Brian Wilson