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"Gottlieb Muffat meets Handel - Works for Harpsichord"

Flóra Fábri, harpsichord

rec: Oct 5, 6 & 13, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
CPO - 555 325-2 (© 2020) (73'57")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list
Scores Muffat

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Suite V in E (HWV 430) (ed. Gottlieb Muffat); Suite IV in e minor (HWV 429) (ed. Gottlieb Muffat); Gottlieb MUFFAT (1690-1770): Ciacona in G; Suite III in D

Source: Gottlieb Muffat, Componimenti musicali per il cembalo, 1739

Borrowing from colleagues of the past and the present was common practice among composers of the 17th and 18th centuries. However, George Frideric Handel definitely was the champion in this field. When he saw good music, he did not hesitate to use it for his own compositions, either by quoting it more or less literally, or by reworking it is such a way that it is not easy to recognize. Handel scholars have identied quite a number of borrowings, but it is likely that they have missed some, for the simple reason that the source may not have been preserved.

Among the composers whom Handel used as his source, are some well-known masters, such as Georg Philipp Telemann, but also composers, who today are known only to the more knowledgeable music lovers. One of these is Gottlieb Muffat. His father, Georg, is very well-known: he was a champion of the goûts réunis, the mixture of French and Italian influences, and in his case also German tradition. He had been in France, where he became acquainted with the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully, and in Rome, where he met Arcangelo Corelli. In the last years of his life, he acted as Kapellmeister at the court of Johann Philipp of Lamberg, Bishop of Passau in Bavaria, near the Austrian border. There Gottlieb was born.

He may have received the first music lessons from his father, who died when he was just 14. He went to Vienna where he came under the guidance of Johann Joseph Fux, who was court composer to the Habsburg emperors in Vienna. As a keyboard player he became involved in opera performances and was also given the duty to teach the children of the imperial family. One of them was the future empress Maria Theresia. When she became empress in 1741, he was promoted to first organist. In 1726 he published a collection of organ music: 72 Versetl sammt 12 Toccaten. These pieces for liturgical use show Muffat's preference for counterpoint, and have led scholars to the conclusion that he was a rather conservative composer. Although he died in 1770 his music is baroque is style; there are no hints at the new style of the mid-18th century. In his later years - after his appointment as first organist at the court - he seems not to have written any music. Whether that was because of his many duties or because he didn't feel at home in the new style is anybody's guess. Fact is that in the preface to his 72 Versetl he paid tribute to Fux, who was a strong advocate of traditional counterpoint.

Only two collections of music by Gottlieb Muffat were published during his lifetime: the organ pieces of 1726 and the Componimenti Musicali which were printed in 1739. The title indicates that he shared his father's ideals: it means "musical components", and that can be interpreted as a mixture of styles and genres. We find here French overtures and dances, pieces in the style of an Italian toccata and German-style fugues. Muffat was highly respected among his peers, and that comes to the fore in the fact that Handel borrowed material from this collection, and especially the Suite III in D recorded by Flóra Fábri.

The title of this disc should not be taken literally. The two composers never met in person. After he had settled in England, Handel did visit Germany, but never Austria. And whereas Georg Muffat was a globetrotter, his son never left Vienna. Therefore, this meeting was purely musical. And it was a two-way street: Muffat was impressed by Handel's keyboard music, and Handel borrowed from Muffat's keyboard works. This is the subject of the present disc. In addition to a suite by Muffat, we get two suites by Handel which Muffat edited.

These suites are taken from the set of eight which Handel published in 1720. In 1736 Muffat compiled a collection of pieces by Handel, including the eight suites of 1720 and six fugues which had been printed in 1735. The inclusion of the latter tells us something about the speed with which printed editions made their way across the continent. Muffat's compilation seems to have been intended for his pupils in the first place. That is a further indication of Muffat's appreciation: apparently he found these suites suitable to learn from and to emulate. In his edition, he added ornaments of his own, again part of his pedagogical activities. Wolfgang Kostujak, in his liner-notes, puts it this way: "What impelled Muffat to his arrangement of Handel's original has less to do with technical playing didactics and more with describing a method of music-making, which was common for the age, meaning the difference between the written notes and playing practice". This was certainly in line with Handel's own practices: we know that he, in his performance of his organ concertos, added quite a lot to what was written down.

Handel was even quicker in exploring Muffat's collection of suites. The Componimenti Musicali came from the press in 1739, and only a few weeks later, Handel had a copy at his disposal. He quickly saw the opportunities Muffat's music offered him, and he used three pieces from the Suite III in D for his Ode for Saint Cecilia's Day, to bee performed in November of that same year: the fantasie, the sarabande and the menuet. The latter and the finale were later used in the Concerti grossi Op. 6.

A somewhat different case is Muffat's Ciacona in D. Kostujak mentions that is based on the same ostinato bass as two of Handel's works, which are part of the latter's collection of suites of 1733. However, as this was used by composers before Handel and Muffat, there cannot be constructed a specific connection between the two here. One of the dedicatees of the Componimenti was Amalia of Austria, niece of the other dedicatee, emperor Charles VI, who celebrated her 38th birthday in 1739. The Ciacona consists of 38 variations.

Handel lovers are aware of the composer's interest in Gottlieb Muffat and know the pieces in which Handel made use of his colleague's keyboard works. However, considering that Gottlieb Muffat's music is seldom performed and recorded, this disc may be of great interest to them to hear for themselves where Handel took his inspiration from. They will also be interested to hear what Muffat did with Handel's harpsichord suites. Obviously, his additions give us some interesting information about ornamentation practice in the 18th century. All these considerations apart, this disc is of great value in itself, because Muffat was an excellent keyboard composer. Even if one does not care about historical and stylistic connections, there is much to enjoy here. That is due to Muffat, but also to Flóra Fábri, a Hungarian-born keyboard player, who regularly participates in the celebrated recordings by her compatriot György Vashegyi. Here she presents herself, on her debut disc, as a fine and stylish interpreter, who performs these suites with zest and imagination. The way she keeps things going and interesting in Muffat's Ciacona is quite impressive. The harpsichord is a copy of a Pierre Donzelague of 1711, an instrument with a full and strong sound, perfectly suited for this repertoire.

If you want to hear more Muffat, it is recommendable to investigate two discs with music from the same collection, recorded by Naoko Akutagawa (*). She also recorded the Ciacona, but not the Suite III in D.

(*) "Suites for Harpsichord"s; "Suites for Harpsichord - 2"

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Flóra Fábri

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