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Georg Muffat (1653 - 1704): "Complete Clavier Works"

Siegbert Rampe, harpsichord [Bernhard von Tucher, 2002, after anonymous instrument, Bavaria/Austria, c.1650]a, clavichord [Jörg Gobeli, 2000, after anonymous South-German instrument, c.1670]b
rec: August 17, 2003, Schloss Nordkirchen (Ger), Oranienburgb, November 3, 2003, Munich, Bayerisches Nationalmuseuma

MDG - 341 1213-2 (60'34")

L’Amerande, Prelude in Fa; Gigue in Ga; Partita in C; Partita in d minora; Partita in d minora; Partita in Fa; Partita in Fa

Musicians and composers in the 17th and 18th centuries travelled a lot, either to look for a job or at the invitation of monarchs, princes or bishops, who wanted to make use of their talents.
Georg Muffat is an example of a composer who didn't spent much time at any one place. In a way one could call him a truly 'European' composer. He was born in the duchy of Savoy, which is now a part of France. But the roots of his family were in Scotland; his ancestors settled in the Alps in the early 17th century. Muffat went to Paris to study with Lully. His keyboard skills must have been developed there too, but it is not known who his teacher was. After his return to Alsace he was appointed organist of the Jesuit monastery in Molsheim. In 1674 Muffat was in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt, then went to Vienna. In 1677 he spent some time in Prague, and in 1678 he acted as organist and chamber musician at the court of prince-archbishop Max Gandolf in Salzburg. In about 1680 he was sent to Rome, to study with Bernardo Pasquini. Here he became acquainted with Arcangelo Corelli, with whose orchestra he performed some of his own orchestral music. In 1690, after the death of Max Gandolf, Muffat went to Passau, where he became Kapellmeister to prince-bishop Johann Philipp von Lamberg.

Nowadays Muffat is mainly known for his orchestral music. In this he mingles the French and the Italian styles, which he had become thoroughly familiar with. As a composer of keyboard music his fame is exclusively based on the Apparatus-musico organisticus, a collection of toccatas for organ and a passacaglia, a ciaccona and variations for keyboard without pedal. In the article on Muffat in New Grove his other keyboard works aren't even mentioned. This disc is therefore breaking new ground by presenting music never recorded before.

The importance of this recording isn't just that it throws light on a side of Muffat which wasn't widely known, but also that it corrects our picture of music history. In his liner notes Siegbert Rampe mentions three aspects of Muffat's keyboard partitas which throw new light on the development of keyboard music around 1700.
Considering the likely date of composition of these pieces - before 1690 - it is Muffat, rather than Couperin or Bach, who was the first to include 'character pieces' in his keyboard works, like burlesca (first Partita in F) and Les Pepheuses (second Partita in F). And Couperin's Ordres weren't the first which went beyond the traditional sequence of dances: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. Before him Muffat included dances like ballet (first Partita in F) and gavotte (Partita in C) in his Partitas. And, finally, whereas the mixture of French and Italian elements in the keyboard music is usually ascribed to Couperin and Bach, Muffat preceded them in his keyboard works.

Siegbert Rampe has carefully studied Muffat's own notes in the prefaces of his publications in regard to performing practice. These include the use of the French notes inégales and French ornaments. "I have attempted to bring out Muffat's intentions by performing the repetitions of movements as improvised doubles, introducing both French and Italian elements in accordance with contemporary practice. I have also improvised the clearly missing Prelude to the Partita in C major".
This results in a very interesting and often exciting recording. I have only one reservation. In the prefaces of some of his publications Muffat asks the performer "to suggest the dance measure properly, so that everyone knows at once what kind of piece it is and so to speak unexpectedly feels the movement of the dance in both mind and foot." I feel the ornamentation and the almost improvisatory manner of playing sometimes obscure the dance rhythms.

Rampe uses two different instruments, a harpsichord and a clavichord. The harpsichord played here is a very peculiar instrument, which has also been used by Franz Raml in his recording of Samuel Scheidt's Tabulatura Nova I. The Bavarian National Museum in Munich owns a harpsichord by an unknown builder from South Germany or Austria, dating from the first half of the 17th century. This instrument, the only surviving of its kind, is in unplayable condition, but a reconstruction was commissioned by the museum, and made by Bernhard von Tucher. What makes this single-manual instrument unique is that it has no fewer than 6 registers: Flöte, Prinzipal I, Prinzipal II, Nasal, Zunge and Lautenzug. It is tuned in meantone temperament and its pitch is a=465 Hz, which was what Muffat preferred.
The last item is played on the clavichord, which was a very common instrument, being considerably cheaper than the harpsichord. The pitch of the clavichord in this recording is a=440 Hz.
The problem with the use of a harpsichord and a clavichord in one recording is the difference in volume between the two. The ear needs time to adapt to the much softer sound of the clavichord. Therefore, in order to fully appreciate the performance on the clavichord, the listener is well advised to listen to these parts of this disc in a separate session.

The attraction of this disc goes far beyond its importance in regard to music history. Muffat's Partitas presented here for the first time are just excellent music, well worth listening to. And the performance by Siegbert Rampe does them full justice.

N.B. This review first appeared on MusicWeb

Johan van Veen (© 2004)

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