musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Joseph FUX (1660 - 1741): "Partite a 3"

Ars Antiqua Austria
Dir: Gunar Letzbor

rec: April 15 - 18, 2010, Ivanka pri Dunaji (castle) (Slovakia)
Challenge Classics - CC72381 (© 2011) (68'12")
Liner-notes: E/D

Partita (E 64); Partita ex b (K 319); Partita ex g (K 320); Partita ex G (K 321); Partita ex d (K 322); Partita ex C (K 323); Partita ex D (K 326); Partita ex C (K 331)a

Gunar Letzbor, Ilia Korol, violin; Hubetr Hoffmann, lute, percussiona; Jan Prievoznik, percussiona; Norbert Zeilberger, harpsichord, organ

When I received this disc I checked how many recordings are devoted to the music of Johann Joseph Fux. My search identified little more than ten, most of which contain vocal rather than instrumental music. That is understandable in that the largest part of his oeuvre consists of vocal, and in particular religious, music. Fux also composed a number of operas, but as far as I know only one of these has been recorded. On balance one can say that Fux is not really well represented on disc, especially considering his historical importance.

It is mainly thanks to his treatise Gradus ad Parnassum which appeared in 1725 that he figures in history books. This book is referred to especially because of its extensive treatment of counterpoint, even though it has much more to offer. But there can be little doubt that it was this particular subject which made Johann Sebastian Bach greatly appreciate the Gradus. In his own music Fux also made extensive use of counterpoint. That was not only because of his own preference, but also that of his employers, the Habsburg emperors whom he served at the court in Vienna.

Fux was born into a family of peasants, and was sent to the seminary in Graz on the advice of the parish priest. Rather than following a vocation as a priest he aimed at being a musician. His first position was that of organist in Ingolstadt, but soon he moved to Vienna where he married in 1696. Apparently his capabilities attracted attention, as it seems emperor Leopold I himself wanted Fux to become court composer in 1698. This is all the more remarkable as since the early 17th century musical life at the court was dominated by musicians from Italy. In 1711, after the death of Leopold, Fux was appointed vice-Hofkapellmeister, and in 1715 Charles VI appointed him Hofkapellmeister, a position he held until his death.

This position was one of the most prestigious in Europe, and it brought Fux considerable fame. He even earned praise from the German composer and theorist Johann Mattheson, who was no advocate of counterpoint and much more a representative of the new aesthetics emphasizing the importance of melody. He stated that in Fux's music "no part is without a function". The editor of the catalogue of Mozart's oeuvre, Ludwig Ritter von Köchel, has done Fux a great favour by writing a book about him and cataloguing his compositions. The K in the track-list refers to his catalogue, the E (for Ergänzung) to the appendix.

A part of Fux's instrumental music comprises pieces which are most likely meant to be played by an orchestra with several instruments per part. That is especially the case with compositions written for liturgical use. He also composed a number of trio sonatas - of which some have been recorded by the Capella Agostino Steffani, directed by Lajos Rovatkay (EMI Classics, 1991). The Partite Ars Antiqua Austria have recorded have the same scoring of two violins and bass. These pieces are likely meant to be played with one instrument per part as well. The bass part is here played on the violone rather than the cello. This was common practice in southern Germany and Austria in the late 17th and the 18th century.

The Partitas are in four or five movements, with the exception of the Partita ex D (K 326) which has six. The form is varied, and doesn't follow the model of the Italian sonata da chiesa or sonata da camera. The Partita ex b (K 319), for instance, begins with an 'introduzzione, allegro', which is followed by 'contraffatrice, un poco allegro', a menuet and trio, a bourrée and a gigue. There are some theatrical elements as well: the Partita ex C (K 323) opens with 'Les Cambattans' (the combatants), goes on with 'Les Vainqueurs' (the conquerors) which is followed by a 'perpetuum mobile'. Especially interesting is the Partita ex C (K 331) which is an early example of what was to become fashionable in the second half of the 18th century: janissary-style music. The first movement is called 'Turcaria', the third 'Janitshara' and the piece closes with 'Post turcica'. In the first and last movement percussion is used. I don't know whether this was prescribed by Fux. The first movement has been recorded by Armonico Tributo Austria, directed by Lorenz Duftschmid (Arcana, 1998), in a larger scoring. Here the percussion is a bit too dominant. Another question mark in regard to the scoring concerns the Partita (E 64) (no key given): according to New Grove this piece is written for flute (probably meaning: recorder) and oboe. It isn't mentioned in the liner-notes, and I don't know why it is played with violins instead.

I have very much enjoyed this disc. Fux's music is of fine quality, and contains much variety in content. Ars Antiqua Austria have done a excellent job here: I liked especially the relaxed style of playing, without any attempt to make it more dramatic than it is or excessive exploration of the theatrical effects.

The track-list in the booklet is sloppy: track-number 15 is followed by 18 to 30. The next page then begins with 29.

In his notes Letzbor writes about "our first CD with music by Fux". This suggests more is to come. Let's hope so.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Ars Antiqua Austria

CD Reviews