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Johann Joseph FUX (1660 - 1741): Instrumental music

[I] "Johann Joseph Fux und die Wiener Hofkapelle" (J.J. Fux and the Vienna court chapel)
Neue Hofkapelle Graz
Dir: Lucia Froihofer, Michael Hell
rec: July 18 - 24, 2011, Graz, Stift Rein
Querstand - VKJK 1138 (© 2011) (55'07")

[II] "Triopartiten"
La Gioconda
rec: March 23 - 25, 2011, Mauerbach, Kartause
Querstand - VKJK 1108 (© 2011) (60'19")

[I] Intrada Pulcheria (K 303); Overture in C (K 334); Overture in C (K 356) [1]; Sinfonia in g minor (K 336); Sinfonia Il mese di Marzo (K 306); Sonata in F (E 67)a; Sonata in G (K 390); Sonata in g minor (K 389)
[II] Partita in C (K 323); Partita in d minor (K 326); Partita in G (K 321) (rondeau); Partita in g minor (K 320); Partita in g minor (K 322); Partita in B flat (K 319)

Source: [1] Concentus musico-instrumentalis, 1701

[I] solia: Mónika Tóth, Eva Lenger, Lucia Froihofer, violin
[II] Lucia Froihofer, Mónika Tóth, violin; Barbara Reiter, cello; Anne Marie Dragosits, harpsichord, organ

Johann Joseph Fux often turns up in books on music history, because he has written a treatise which for a long time has been used as educational material for would-be composers. Gradus ad Parnassum was also held in high esteem by Johann Sebastian Bach, especially because of the extensive treatment of counterpoint. The fact that Fux was also an important and highly respected composer himself is far less taken account of, and only fairly recently his oeuvre is performed and recorded. In 2011 Challenge Classics released a disc with Partitas in 3 parts, performed by Ars Antiqua Austria which largely contains the same pieces as the disc of La Gioconda. The two violinists of this ensemble are also members of the Neue Hofkapelle Graz which recorded a survey of Fux's instrumental music.

Fux was born in Hirtenfeld in Styria, near Graz, and was a student at the Imperial Ferdinandeum at the Jesuit University of Graz. From 1683 to 1689 he studied in Ingolstadt. He worked as organist at the Schottenkloster in Vienna in the mid-1690s, and in 1698 he was appointed court composer by emperor Leopold I; he held this position under his successor Joseph I. In 1715 he became Oberkapellmeister of the imperial court; in this capacity he directed the largest court orchestra in Europe, which comprised sometimes more than 100 musicians.

In his various functions Fux was expected to write the music for the liturgy and the theatre as well as instrumental music for regular use in the private rooms of the court and for special occasions of a ceremonial nature. The Neue Hofkapelle Graz presents a survey of the various genres of instrumental music which are represented in Fux' oeuvre. The disc opens and closes with two orchestral overtures which are modelled after the opera suites of Jean-Baptiste Lully, of the same kind as the overtures by German composers like Telemann and Fasch. The Ouverture in C (K 356) is part of a collection which was printed in 1701 and was dedicated to the then future emperor Joseph I. This overture is scored for strings and bc, and includes some descriptive movements, like Marche des Ecurieus. The last piece of the programme is another Ouverture in C (K 334), this time for two oboes, bassoon, strings and bc, with percussion added by the interpreters in some of the movements. In these overtures Fux presents himself as a representative of the goûts réunis, the mixture of the Italian, French and German style.

In between we hear two pieces from operas, the Sinfonia (or overture) to Il mese di Marzo, scored for two oboes, bassoon, strings and bc, and the Intrada in C from Pulcheria for the same scoring with an additional part for the trumpet. These are extroverted ceremonial pieces which reflect the splendour of the imperial court. Much more restrained is the Sonata in F (E 67) for three violins without basso continuo. This sonata is a mixture of German counterpoint and Italian expression, of which the opening grave is the most striking specimen. This piece comprises a sequence of contrasting movements, and so does the Sinfonia in g minor (K 336). This piece was composed for liturgical practice. Such pieces were used as gradual sonatas, and played between the readings. It isn't fully clear with how many players such pieces were performed. In his liner-notes Guido Erdmann states that the size of churches made it necessary to perform with more players per part. But he adds that the surviving parts suggest that some compositions were intended for performance with solo violins as here in the Sonata in g minor.

The Neue Hofkapelle Graz delivers a very interesting survey of Fux' instrumental music, and plays its selection brilliantly. The two Overtures come off with all the grandeur they were expected to show, and the two pieces from theatre works are also given splendid performances. The three soloists from the ensemble fully explore the expressive features of the Sonata in F. If you don't know Fux' music this disc offers a perfect opportunity to enhance you knowledge. It would surprise me if the performances wouldn't convince you that Fux is a composer who deserves our full attention.

The second disc is entirely devoted to Partitas in three parts. These are in fact trio sonatas, one of the most popular genres of instrumental music of the late 17th and the first half of the 18th century. Fux was especially praised for his trios by the German theorist Johann Mattheson. In this genre 55 pieces by Fux have been preserved; 43 of them are assumed to be written for ecclesiastical use. In the complete edition of Fux' works 12 pieces which are considered chamber music are printed as Triopartitas; they are scored for two violins and bc. In the German-speaking part of Europe the word partita was used as a synonym for suite. The Partite a 3 which La Gioconda has selected are very different in structure. The Partita in g minor (K 320) begins with a Sonata which comprises an andante and an allegro; it is followed by a sarabande and a passacaglia. The Partita in C (K 323) shows that Fux also rooted in the tradition of Austrian music. It begins with two descriptive movements: Les Combattans and Les Vainqueurs, which are reminiscent of a piece like the Battaglia by Biber. This comes far better off in the recording of Ars Antiqua Austria then in this interpretation of La Gioconda. The four members of the ensemble play very well, but the interpretation is a little too one-dimensional. Ars Antiqua Austria's performances show more differentiation between the various pieces, the tempi are mostly swifter, and in general the players show more creativity in the realisation of these partitas. Considering that in southern Germany and Austria mostly a 16-foot instrument was used as string bass, the option of using a violone by Ars Antiqua Austria is probably more historically plausible than a cello as in La Gioconda's recording.

Although I prefer the former's recording this disc by La Gioconda is welcome. The more attention is paid to Fux the better.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

La Gioconda
Neue Hofkapelle Graz

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