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Johann KUHNAU (1660 - 1722): "Complete Organ Music"

Stefano Molardi, organ

rec: May 5 - 6, 2014, Freiberg, Doma; August 5 - 6, 2014, Rötha, Marienkircheb
Brilliant Classics - 95089 (3 CDs) (© 2015) (3.40'10")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Fugue in Cb; Partie I in C (prelude)a [1]; Partie I in c minor (prelude)a [2]; Partie II in D (prelude)a [1]; Partie II in d minor (prelude)a [2]; Partie III in e minor (prelude)a [2]; Partie IV in f minor (ciacona)b [2]; Partie V in g minor (prelude; fugue)a [2]; Partie VI in a minor (prelude)b [2]; Prelude in Ga; Prelude in B flata; Sonata in B flata [2]; Suonata I in g minorb [3]; Suonata II in Db [3]; Suonata III in Fb [3]; Suonata IV in c minorb [3]; Suonata V in e minorb [3]; Suonata VI in B flatb [3]; Suonata VII in a minorb [3]; Suonata I in C: Der Streit zwischen David und Goliatha [4]; Suonata II in G: Der von David vermittelst der Music curierte Saula [4]; Suonata III in G: Jacobs Heyratha [4]; Suonata IV in C: Der todtkranke und wieder gesunde Hiskiasa [4]; Suonata V in F: Der Heyland Israelis/Gideona [4]; Suonata VI in E flat: Jacobs Tod und Begräbnisa [4]; Toccata in Ab

[1] Neue Clavier-Übung, Erster Theil, 1689; [2] Neue Clavier-Übung, Andrer Theil, 1692; [3] Frische Clavier-Früchte, 1696; [4] Musicalische Vorstellung einiger biblischer Historien, 1700

Johann Kuhnau is one of the better-known names in music history. That is due to two factors. The first is that he was Thomaskantor in Leipzig from 1701 to 1722, and as such the immediate predecessor of Johann Sebastian Bach. The second is his composition of six Biblical Sonatas which have attracted relatively much interest of performers as they are rather unique in telling a biblical story in music. These sonatas are about the only part of his oeuvre which are known to a wider audience. His oeuvre includes a large number of sacred works, but these have been largely ignored, except his motet Tristis est anima mea, which is often performed and recorded in an arrangement by Bach.

However, it seems that this situation is gradually to change. Fairly recently CPO started a project of recording his complete sacred music. We have to wait and see whether this will materialize; so far two discs have been released. Record companies seem to be hesitant: it is probably telling that a performance of the seven sonatas which Kuhnau published in 1696 under the title of Frische Clavier-Früchte, was recorded by Jan Katzschke in 2009 and only released in 2013 by CPO. The present disc includes the complete organ works, according to its title. However, the word 'organ music' is open for debate: the Biblical Sonatas were not intended for the organ in the first place and that goes certainly for the collection of 1696 just mentioned. Most of the preludes are taken from two books with harpsichord suites. That does not mean that they can't be played on the organ, although it is questionable whether they fare that well on it.

Let me first focus on Kuhnau as a person and a composer. By all accounts he was brilliant, intellectually and musically. He received an outstanding education and came into contact with some of the brightest minds of his time. He was a kind of uomo universale, who was active as a lawyer, but also as an author of various books, spoke several languages and was also knowledgeable in theology and mathematics. He spent the main part of his life in Leipzig, where he was appointed as organist in the Thomaskirche in 1684. In 1701 he succeeded Johann Schelle as Thomaskantor. In this capacity he was the teacher of three of Germany's most renowned composers of the generation of Bach: Johann David Heinichen, Johann Friedrich Fasch and Christoph Graupner. The fact that the latter two were offered the job of Thomaskantor after Kuhnau's death in 1722 bears witness to the standard of Kuhnau as a teacher.

Kuhnau published four sets of keyboard pieces. In 1689 and 1692 two sets of suites came from the press under the title of Neue Clavier-Übung. It was followed in 1696 by seven sonatas, printed as Frische Clavier-Früchte, and in 1700 by the Musicalische Vorstellung einiger biblischer Historien. Kuhnau seems to have been the first German composer to write sonatas specifically intended for the keyboard. The second volume of the Neue Clavier-Übung included the very first of his sonatas, alongside seven suites. It is the Sonata in B flat, which is part of the present recording. It shows the Italian influence on Kuhnau as a composer of keyboard music. It consists of five movements, or rather four: the last is a repeat of the first. The first and second movement have no character indications, the third is an expressive adagio, followed by a very short allegro which is in fact a menuet.

The seven sonatas of 1696 are in four or five movements. Many of these have no character indications; neither of the four movements of Suonata V in e minor has one. That allows for different interpretations, which partly explains the various timings of the sonatas in Katzschke's and Molardi's performances. The former underlines the fact that the sonatas are close to the organ works of representatives of the North German organ school, which are rooted in the Italian stylus phantasticus. He does so by sometimes playing the movements - which are mostly not formally separated - almost attacca. Molardi generally takes a bit more time between them. That could well be due to the fact that he plays them on the organ in a more reverberant acoustic, which requires a different interpretation and especially a different approach to tempo. An example of a sonata whose movements are more formally separated, is the Suonata VI in B flat. It begins with a ciaccona which is repeated at the end. In between are two movements without a character indication embracing a movement, called vivace, which is a double fugue. Some movements have a rather improvisatory character, reminiscent to the North-German organ toccata.

The Biblical Sonatas are unique because of their sacred subjects. The whole concept of programme music for keyboard certainly was not new. Kuhnau himself referred to models by Froberger and "other excellent authors". However, their programme music was not biblical. Kuhnau takes six episodes from the Old Testament, which he then illustrates in music. They are divided into different sections, varying from three to nine, whose Italian titles explain their meaning. Some stories are pre-eminently suited to musical illustration because of their dramatic character. That certainly goes for the first, about the confrontation between David and Goliath, and for the fifth, about the judge Gideon who battles the Midianites. Very different is the second: it focuses on the melancholy of Saul, first King of Israel, which is assuaged by David's playing the harp. It is especially through the use of harmony that Saul's state of mind is depicted. The same is the case in the fourth sonata, about King Hezekiah, who is told that he has only a short time to live, and then prays to God to give him some more years. In such pieces the feelings of the main characters are in the centre. That is also the case in the third, about Jacob's wedding to Rachel, as he finds out that his uncle Laban has played a trick on him and has given him her elder sister Lea instead. Sorrow dominates the last sonata, about Jacob's death and funeral. In the more dramatic episodes Kuhnau makes use of musical figures which we know from Italian music of the 17th century and also some violin music written by composers in southern Germany and Austria, such as Schmelzer and Biber. Kuhnau turns to lively rhythms to depict joy, for instance of the Israelites after the death of Goliath, and of Hezekiah, when his health is restored. Twice Kuhnau includes a hymn: Aus tiefer Not is used to illustrate the trembling of the Israelites at the appearance of Goliath, and Hezekiah's lament about the announcement of his death is depicted by the chorale Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder.

This set also includes a number of separate pieces. These are mostly taken from the suites which are included in the two volumes of Neue Clavier-Übung. These mostly open with a prelude, and these again show a strong similarity with the organ music of the North German organ school. The preludes mostly include a fugue; in the 17th century prelude and fugue were not formally separated, as would be the case in the 18th century, for example in the oeuvre of Bach.

I already indicated that most of the pieces recorded here were not intended for the organ in the first place. That does not mean that a performance on the organ is to be excluded. Kuhnau usually uses the word Clavier which basically refers to any kind of keyboard instrument. That includes the organ, as Bach's third volume of his Clavier-Übung indicates, which is clearly intended for the organ. However, it is not easy to imagine where Kuhnau's Biblical Sonatas may have been played. Public organ recitals did not exist at his time, and there seems to be no place for these sonatas in the liturgy. Therefore, a performance on strung keyboard instruments, such as the harpsichord or the clavichord, seems most plausible. If someone wants to play them on the organ, a smallish instrument as may have been located in the homes or chapels of aristocratic families, is the most obvious choice. The two large organs Stefano Molardi has chosen are not the most appropriate instruments, despite the fact that Kuhnau was one of the examinators after Silbermann had finished the building of the organ in Freiberg in 1714. Molardi also mentions that Kuhnau examined the organ in Rötha; however that was not the instrument in the Marienkirche, but the one in the Georgenkirche, which Silbermann delivered in 1721.

It is obvious that when the Biblical Sonatas are performed at such a large instrument, the interpreter makes use of the stops he has at his disposal. There is nothing wrong with that, but I feel that here Molardi often overdoes it. He just changes the registration too often and all those shifts in colours and dynamics tend to distract from the way Kuhnau illustrates the programme with musical figures and harmonic progressions. That is the case, for instance, in the opening movement of the Suonata II in G, where the harmonic development in Kuhnau's depiction of King Saul's state of mind is overshadowed by the frequent changes in registration. It also creates unrest and undermines the coherence of a sonata. That said, I mostly like Molardi's playing. The effects Kuhnau wanted to achieve come off well, also thanks to a clear articulation and a choice of tempo which respects the acoustical circumstances. I prefer the sonatas to be played on the harpsichord, but Molardi's interpretation offers a different perspective.

To sum it up: the Biblical Sonatas are not entirely convincing and fare better on a strung keyboard or a smaller organ, but as a whole this set is worth to be investigated by anyone interested in keyboard music of the baroque era. The fact that both organs are in modified mean-tone temperament certainly speaks in favour of these performances.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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