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Johann MATTHESON (1681-1764)
Die wohlklingende Fingersprache [65:50]
Sonata per Clavicembalo (1713) [8:01]
Andrea Benecke (piano)
rec. 19-26 May 2015, Tonstudio mb Musicproduktion, Hannover.

Johann Mattheson was well known in his day, probably more for his musicological writing than for his own music, although a search on this site will show numerous recordings on the CPO label and others. He was a leading figure who had several operas and oratorios to his name, alongside chamber works and the keyboard collection on this recording, “The Harmonious Language of the Fingers”. This brings together 12 fugues, a fughetta and five dance movements such as might be found in a typical suite from the period.

Comparison with Bach is inevitable for such a collection, but my hopes of finding something to rival The Art of Fugue were alas not realised. Mattheson himself is said to have appreciated J.S. Bach’s skill, but he left his name out of an otherwise compendious “Grundlager einer Ehren-Pforte” that includes 149 biographies of other composers. A case is made for Mattheson’s apparent rejection of “richly ornamented baroque magniloquence” and apparent “premonitions of romanticism”, but to my ears we have here a composer who was no doubt reasonably skilled and highly knowledgeable, but couldn’t quite hack it in comparison with Bach and wanted no part in elevating his contemporary’s name over his own. There are entertaining aspects to these pieces, but you can either argue that they are the creations of a “free spirit” or someone who couldn’t quite land on the kind of musical sweet-spot that delivers music satisfying at every level and in ways that defy period and style.

There are indeed some fascinating pieces which would reward study, though for what reasons will be for the listener to decide. The Corrente on track 6 caught my ear for its strange tonality, a winding path that changes from one bar to the next but always somehow finds its way back to the root. It’s nice to think of this as forward-thinking exploration, but for myself I can’t get around a general lack of sophistication or finish that would elevate such things into works that would work in a wider context. One can imagine many of Bach’s pieces as useful with orchestra or any kind of instrumental combination, but Mattheson’s stubbornly resist a life beyond the keyboard. The Sonata is one of Mattheson’s earliest works but doesn’t out-Handel Handel by a long way. While I’m all for breaking with convention this strikes me as worthy of study in how not to write a sonata.

Andrea Benecke apparently recorded the Wohlklingende Fingersprache back in 2006, but this première version being long out of print it was decided to make a complete new production. I would love to be able to say I warm to Andrea Benecke’s playing, but alas she does Mattheson’s music few favours. There are constant rhythmic micro-anticipations, little left/right hand de-synchronisations and clumsy ornaments which give the whole thing an amateur feel; too many moments where the piano keys threaten to turn into a fistful of firewood, and musical sequences which are ploughed through with little sense of shape or direction. The tempi in the very odd Sonata are all over the place and I wonder how many takes it took for even a half-decent recording to emerge. The piano sound is decent enough but with apologies to the hard-working team, if this were me I wouldn’t have put this one out at all.

Dominy Clements



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