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Johann Gottfried MÜTHEL (1728-1788)
The Five Keyboard Concertos

No. 1 in C minor [31:44]
No. 2 in D minor [22:25]
No. 3 in G major [22:56]
No. 4 in D major [23:47]
No. 5 in B flat major [24:21]
Marcin Świątkiewicz (harpsichord)
Arte Dei Suonatori
rec. 2013, Polish Radio, Lutoslawski Studio, Warsaw, Poland.
BIS BIS-2179 SACD [54:58 + 72:12]

Johann Gottfried Müthel is by no means a household name, though the MDG label has a substantial 2 CD set of concertos and chamber music (review) which in 2008 I summed up as “a lively programme of some of the juiciest pre-classical post-baroque music you will find anywhere”. This is good enough reason to pursue Müthel further, and if extra incentive were needed for this BIS recording I’m already a big fan of Arte Dei Suonatori, and still very much enjoy their Handel Concerti Grossi and Telemann Ouvertures pittoresques.

The booklet for these keyboard concertos helpfully outlines Müthel’s background as a much admired pupil of J.S. Bach and a “creator of original and ambitious works.” Müthel inherited the three-movement concerto plan of his teacher, but the style incorporates details more familiar from C.P.E. Bach, so you can expect plenty of Empfindsamkeit to go along with the crisply authentic performing approach of Arte Dei Suonatori and soloist Marcin Świątkiewicz. This was a period which built experiment onto the foundations of formality of structure, so there are plenty of wide melodic leaps, interesting dissonances, rhythmic interruptions and dynamic contrasts to keep the listener on their toes. You might think the cover art for this release to be a little odd, but this is all about bucking convention and at all costs avoiding the ‘beige’ in music. This artwork is a detail from a piece by Vladimír Kiseljov called Musikalisches Opfer and was painted during a recital given by Marcin Świątkiewicz, so there are all kinds of fascinating undercurrents of synergy at work here. I remember Marcin Świątkiewicz during his Master degree studies at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague and am by no means surprised to see him recognised as a leading performer today.

Nicely balanced and with good tone and rich bass from the strings, the harpsichord is just forward enough to give it clarity as a solo instrument while also allowing it to blend with the rest of the ensemble – a tricky ‘balancing act’ indeed. The instrument used is a 2008 copy of a Ruckers harpsichord from 1624 and it sounds gorgeous. You will notice the substantial running times for these concertos, and they are indeed endlessly good, the First Concerto with two movements over 11 minutes each and all of the Adagio central movements with plenty of beautifully exploratory rumination to warm our hearts.

There are qualities about Müthel’s music which are easier to describe than they are to define. The open quality of his melodies often gives the music a kind of blue-sky positivity, and while he can give way to operatic drama there are few if any moments when you imagine vocal lyricism. These are emphatically instrumental works and perfectly written for this combination, not generic pieces which are essentially interchangeable with other genres.

I’ve had a look around to see if there is any competition for this release, but the only concerto which seems available is the B flat major one played on fortepiano by Christine Schornsheim with the Berlin Akademie fur Alte Musik on Harmonia Mundi HMA1951740 alongside a couple of Bach’s concertos. This is a terrifically meaty performance and counts as quite a discovery, but this harpsichord version is its equal in every respect. This concerto is a magnificent conclusion to the present set, bristling with energy in the first movement, the tender central Poco adagio always keeping up an underlying pace and restless tension, while the final Allegro is virtuoso and full of really swinging rhythm.

If you like C.P.E. Bach or just harpsichord concertos in general then this is something with which you truly need to become acquainted. I wasn’t expecting to be bowled over by this music and these performances in this way, but I am now a zealous convert and am likely to make this the soundtrack to my summer.

Dominy Clements