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Georg MUFFAT (1653 - 1704): Auserlesene Instrumentalmusik

Holland Baroque Society
Dir: Matthew Halls

rec: Sept 2007, Haarlem, Doopsgezinde Kerk
Channel Classics - CCS 27408 ( 2008) (64'26")

Concerto I in d 'Bona Nova'; Concerto II in A 'Cor vigilans'; Concerto III in B 'Convalescentia'; Concerto IV in g 'Dulce somnum'; Concerto V in D 'Saeculum'; Concerto VI in a 'Quis hic?'; Concerto VII in E 'Deliciae Regum'

It is always tricky to compare situations or people from different eras. The programme notes in the booklet of this disc are headed "Georg Muffat, a European without borders". And the writer, the Dutch musicologist Gerard van der Leeuw, ends thus: "Let the complete assurance with which Muffat moved from country to country within Europe be an example to us all". We should not forget, though, that Muffat's movements were not entirely voluntarily as it were often the circumstances which made him move. And the travelling of musicians and composers through Europe was not really uncommon in the 17th century. Many composers were sent to Italy by their employers to broaden their horizon and become acquainted with the latest trends in music. Others preferred the French style and went to France to learn from the great masters in Paris, in particular Jean-Baptiste Lully. And although Muffat deliberately mixed the national styles and was himself indeed a kind of European - born in the Elzas in a family with Scottish roots - he considered himself German. To label him a 'European' is bit anachronistic.

One of the most striking aspects of Muffat's music is the mixture of French and Italian influences. This 'mixed taste' was to become a common feature of the music in Germany in the first half of the 18th century, and even in France composers began to incorporate Italian elements in their compositions. But one could argue that Muffat was the very first to mix French and Italian elements and also went a bit further than others in this respect. He studied with Lully and Corelli, and held both composers in high esteem. The number of his compositions is limited - at least as far as we know - but of consistently high quality. What makes his collections of music especially interesting are the prefaces which contain remarks in regard to interpretation.

The present disc contains seven of the twelve concertos of the collection Auserlesene Instrumental-Music' which was published in Passau in 1701. Five of these concertos are reworkings of the sonatas which were published as Armonico Tributo in Salzburg in 1682. It is relevant to quote the full title of the 1701 print here: "Auserlesene mit Ernst und Lust gemengte Instrumental Music". The words "Ernst" (seriousness) and "Lust" (pleasure) are particularly interesting, as in his preface Muffat explains why he has mixed French and Italian elements: "I strove so to balance profound Italian feeling with French gaiety and charm that neither the one should colour the music too darkly, not the other make it too frivolous". This explains the general structure of these concertos, which contain of two halves, each beginning with a movement called 'grave', mostly followed by dance movements in a fast tempo. But Muffat doesn't slavishly follow this structure: the Concerto IV begins with a 'sonata' (like all first movements) with the character of grave, but this is followed by a sarabande, which is again labelled 'grave'. And the Concerto VII also has a second slow movement, an 'aria' with the indication 'largo'. On the other hand, the Concerto VI begins with two fast movements: a sonata in two sections, allegro and presto, followed by an 'aria' which is again an allegro.

In his concertos Muffat also deliberately avoided all extremisms often associated with the Italian style: he wanted his music being "natural and flowing", and therefore he avoided "extravagant runs" and "frequent and awkward leaps". This probably also explains the lack of strong dissonances; the strongest are in the second grave of the Concerto V. The influence of Corelli, who provided Muffat with "many useful observations touching his style", is also present in the sequence of short slow and fast sections within a single movement, like here in the second movement (aria) of the Concerto III.

Before the era of the historical performance practice Muffat's music was completely ignored. The British musicologist Arthur Hutchings was among the first to pay tribute to Muffat's art: "He avoided the formular of his times unless he could invest them with life (...) He seems to have been uncapable of slovenly or even mediocre work". Among the first recordings of Muffat's music was the one by Nikolaus Harnoncourt's Concentus musicus Wien for Archive Production. Since then a number of recordings have appeared, but it would be an exaggeration to say that Muffat's orchestral works belong to the standard repertoire of today's baroque orchestras. Over a period of about 30 years of attending concerts I can't remember having heard more than a handful of these pieces. And whereas his 'Armonico Tributo' has been recorded a number of times, the other collections have hardly enjoyed the attention they deserve.

That makes this recording very welcome. The more so as the interpretation is doing full justice to this splendid music. The Holland Baroque Society consists mainly of rather young musicians, most of whom are members of established Dutch and international baroque orchestras. Under the direction of Matthew Halls, also director of The King's Consort, the playing is of a consistently high level. The ensemble produces a very beautiful sound, and I very much like its relaxed way of playing. The slower movements get the full weight of their gravitas as intended by the composer, but the lighter movements of French taste are equally well played. The performance makes one not just hear, but even feel the dance rhythms, thanks to clear but never exaggerated dynamic accents and articulation. The mixture of Italian and French style, which Muffat aimed at, has been very well realised in this recording.

If you don't know Muffat's music, this is your chance of getting to know it. The Holland Baroque Society is delivering an eloquent and passionate plea for this splendid repertoire.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

Relevant links:

Holland Baroque Society

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