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Johann Friedrich MEISTER (? - 1697): Il giardino del piacere

Musica antiqua Köln
Dir: Reinhard Goebel

rec: Nov 18 - 21, 2004, Cologne, WDR-Funkhaus (Klaus-von-Bismarcksaal)
Berlin Classics - 0016742BC (© 2011) (66'40")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Sonata II in d minor; Sonata IV in e minor; Sonata V in C; Sonata VI in a minor; Sonata X in c minor; Sonata XI in D

Source: Il giardino di piacere overo Raccolta de diversi fiori musicali ..., 1695

Reinhard Goebel, Stephan Schardt, violin; Klaus-Dieter Brandt, cello; Léon Berben, harpsichord

From its formation in 1973 until its disbandment in 2004 the German ensemble Musica antiqua Köln not only delivered technically virtuosic and musically enthralling performances of standard repertoire of the baroque era, it also presented little-known repertoire to the music-loving public. Until the release of a set of discs with concertos by Johann David Heinichen this composer was largely an unknown quantity. One of the ensemble's main fields of interest was the German instrumental music of the late 17th century. It played instrumental sonatas by the likes of Buxtehude, Pachelbel and Reincken at a time they were mainly known among organists. Their recordings have led to an increase in the interest of this repertoire which now belongs to the mainstream.

It is fitting that the very last recording of this ensemble is also devoted to German instrumental music of the late 17th century. As Reinhard Goebel writes in the booklet: "The wheel comes full circle, finis coronat opus - a wish of mine!". This disc comprises a studio recording of the German radio channel WDR 3 (Cologne) which has been the driving force behind so many of the ensemble's recordings. And like many previous projects this last was also devoted to a little-known composer about whom we have not that much biographical information. According to the track-list Johann Friedrich Meister was born around 1638, but that is not confirmed, and there is also a suggestion that he may have been born in 1655. What is known is that Meister was recruited by the Hanoverian Kapellmeister Nicolaus Adam Strungk on 20 January 1677 as music director of the court chapel of Duke Ferdinand Albrecht I of Brunswick-Lüneburg at Schloss Bevern. Soon he was involved in a conflict between the Duke and his musicians, and as a result he was imprisoned. He escaped and entered the service of Bishop August Friedrich of Lübeck, who had his residence in Eutin. In 1683 he became organist of the Marienkirche in Flensburg where he also was responsible for the composition of sacred vocal music. All his compositions in this category have been preserved in the Bokemeyer-Sammlung, one of the major sources of German music from the decades around 1700 which is now in the Berlin Staatsbibliothek.

The collection of twelve sonatas, six of which are played on this disc, are his only extant instrumental music. It is impossible to say whether he has written more. These pieces are remarkable: although they have been written in North-Germany, in the same region where Dietrich Buxtehude and Johann Adam Reincken were active, these sonatas have very little in common with their instrumental works. If you know Buxtehude's sonatas, for instance, you wouldn't guess Meister lived and worked in their time and environment. The scoring is that of the trio sonata but is different in that it is for two violins rather than the more common combination of violin and viola da gamba plus basso continuo. The sonatas take the form of suites, with elements of the sonata da chiesa (grave, adagio, allegro, fuga) and the sonata da camera (corrente, sarabanda). These represent a mixture of German and Italian elements. There are also traces of the French style, like the gigue and the menuet. Some of the sonatas include a movement over a basso ostinato, such as the passacaglia and the ciaconna. The French elements are hardly discernible as such, as they are seen here through German glasses, as it were.

Four of the six sonatas on this disc are in minor keys, and they open with a grave (Sonatas II and X) or an adagio (Sonatas IV and VI). In particular the Sonata II in d minor comes straight to the point. The Sonatas V and XI in major keys begin with an allegro. The number of movements varies from five to eight and the length of the various movements is very different. Some fugues barely take a minute whereas the sarabanda from the Sonata IV in e minor lasts no less than seven minutes. Notable is the fact that the menuets are not the elegant dances they were to become in the next century. They all have the indication of allegro and are played here at high pace with poignant accents. Some movements are harmonically daring, such as the opening adagio from the Sonata VI in a minor and the last section of the menuet from the Sonata XI in D.

The quality of these sonatas are such that it is a worthy farewell to an ensemble which belonged to the best and most exciting in the business. The playing is of a high standard and the interpretations make a lasting impression. Two things are notable. Firstly, the playing is in line with the tendency of other recordings of this kind of repertoire by the ensemble. The articulation is less sharp than it used to be; the music is approached almost like consort music of the early 17th century. I referred to this in my review of the ensemble's recording of Biber's Harmonia artificioso-ariosa where I expressed my wish for more breathing spaces. The same goes for this disc. The second thing is that a slight vibrato creeps in which was largely absent in earlier recordings of Musica antiqua Köln. Whether this is a matter of interpretation or due to technical problems - Goebel hasn't given up playing for no reason - I can't tell.

These two features don't withhold me from wholeheartedly recommending this disc. This music is intriguing and has a strongly individual character. I sincerely hope that some ensemble is going to record the remaining six sonatas from this collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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