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Johann Gottlieb Goldberg & Johann Gottfried Müthel: Harpsichord Concertos

[I] Johann Gottlieb GOLDBERG (1727 - 1756): "Harpsichord Concertos"
Alina Ratkowska, harpsichord
Goldberg Baroque Ensemble
Dir: Alina Ratkowska
rec: Oct 16 - 18, 2017, Nieszawa, [The Elevation of Holy Cross Church]
MDG - 901 2061-8 (© 2018) (61'48")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list
score Goldberg, Concerto in d minor

Concerto for harpsichord, strings and bc in d minor; Concerto for harpsichord, strings and bc in E flat

Adam Pastuszka, Malgorzata Malke, Julian Zurawski, Joanna Aksnowicz, Monika Boroni, Angelika Lesniak, violin; Dymitr Olszewski, Anna Luiza Aleksandrow, viola; Bartosz Kokosza, cello; Michal Bak, double bass

[II] Johann Gottfried MÜTHEL (1728-1788): "The Five Keyboard Concertos"
Marcin Swiatkiewicz, harpsichord
Arte dei Suonatori
rec: May 2013, Warsaw, Lutoslawski Studio
BIS - 2179 (2 CDs) (© 2015) (2.07'10")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/P
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto No. 1 for harpsichord, strings and bc in c minor; Concerto No. 2 for harpsichord, two bassoons, strings and bc in d minora; Concerto No. 3 for harpsichord, strings and bc in G; Concerto No. 4 for harpsichord, strings and bc in D; Concerto No. 5 for harpsichord, strings and bc in B flat

Aureliusz Golinski, Maria Papuzinska-Us, Marzena Biwo, Ewa Golinska, Adam Pastuszka, Malgorzata Malke, violin; Anna Nowak-Pokrzywinska, viola; Tomasz Pokrzywinski, cello; Michal Bak, double bass; Tomasz Wesolowski, Szymon Józefowski, bassoona

Johann Gottlieb Goldberg is certainly one of the best-known characters in music history. Although he was a composer, it is not in this capacity that he has become a household name. His fame stems from the fact that he has given his name to the Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen (BWV 988) by Johann Sebastian Bach, published in 1742 as fourth part of his Clavier-Übung. Today they are known as Goldberg Variations, because tradition has it that Goldberg, one of Bach's pupils, played this work at the age of 14. Scholars have cast doubt on this story, and it seems likely that it is largely a myth. However, there is no doubt that Goldberg was an extremely gifted performer at the harpsichord.

There have been mixed feelings about his qualities as a composer. The first Bach biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, for instance, stated that Goldberg had "no particular talent for composition". However, Johann Friedrich Reichardt, who quoted Forkel in his autobiography, specially referred to Goldberg's keyboard works to refute this view. That makes this recording of his two keyboard concertos particularly interesting.

Due to his early death, Goldberg's compositional output is rather small. He left two sacred cantatas, some pieces for solo keyboard, some trio sonatas as well as a sonata for two violins, viola and bc, plus the two concertos recorded by Alina Ratkowska. His output shows considerable stylistic variety: whereas the cantatas remain rather close to the style of Bach, his trio sonatas are in the galant idiom. The two keyboard concertos show strong similarity with the concertos of the second Bach son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. They include melodic twists and turns, an imaginative use of harmony and many dynamic contrasts as well as sudden orchestral interventions. The role of the accompanying strings is notable anyway. The solo part is also differentiated: passages in two parts alternate with chordal episodes, including full chords of up to eight notes. The opening allegro from the Concerto in d minor turns to an andante towards the end, whose last note is to be played pianissimo, preparing the largo, which follows almost attacca.

The solo parts are technically demanding, and one cannot but admire the way Alina Ratkowska realises them. She plays them brilliantly, with flair and panache. The expression in the slow movements is also perfectly conveyed. The orchestra follows her every step of the way and reacts very alert on the sudden contrasts which are a feature of these concertos. This quite an impressive disc, and an eloquent testimony of Goldberg's skills as a composer.

In comparison to Goldberg Johann Gottfried Müthel is far less known. I suspect that he is mainly known among organists. He was the son of an organist and was educated to the same profession; his main teacher was Johann Paul Künzen in Lübeck. At the age of 19 he occupied his first position as organist at the court of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. He was given the opportunity to go to Leipzig to study with Bach, but the master died only a few months after Müthel's arrival. Therefore it seems unlikely that the two were in close contact. Even so, like Goldberg Müthel is ranked among Bach's pupils. There are obvious stylistic similarities between the two, certainly in their keyboard concertos. Müthel wrote five of them, all for harpsichord with strings and basso continuo. The exception is the Concerto No. 2 in d minor, as in the second movement Müthel requires two obbligato bassoons or cellos; the performers of the recording reviewed here opted for the former.

The solo parts are just as virtuosic as those in Goldberg's concertos, and that indicates that Müthel must have been a virtuoso himself. In the solo part he explores the full range of the keyboard, often within the span of a couple of bars.

If one starts to listen to this recording without knowing the name of the composer one could take them for compositions by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. In particular the first two concertos have the same kind of nervousness which is a feature of so many of Emanuel's works. We have also the same sudden changes in melody and dynamics as in the latter's music. However, the other concertos are more of a mixture between the fashion of Müthel's time and the past. The Concerto No. 4 in D is probably the most 'baroque' of the five concertos. The ritornello which opens the piece reminds me of concertos in the style of Vivaldi. The closing allegro ma non troppo has the form of a dance. In between is a dramatic adagio, which Regula Rapp, in her liner-notes, rightly calls 'operatic'. There are some hints of recitative. True recitativic passages are included in the opening movement from the Concerto No. 5 in B flat. It is divided into four sections: allegro, adagio (recitativo), poco adagio and allegro. It is fitting that the next movement (poco adagio) follows attacca. I would also mention the slow movement from the Concerto No. 3 in G, another reference to the style of the baroque period.

Marcin Swiatkiewicz delivers an impressive performance of the solo part. The brilliance and the many twists and turns come off perfectly, and Swiatkiewicz makes sure the keyboard part sounds as surprising as it is supposed to. The orchestra does an outstanding job here as well, playing with great attentiveness and realising the dynamic contrasts to the full. Two of these concertos have been recorded before, but Müthel's concertos fully deserve to be available complete.

However, I have one serious objection. Swiatkiewicz plays the copy of a Ruckers harpsichord of 1624 (the 'Colmar Ruckers'). That in itself is a rather odd choice; it seems highly unlikely that Ruckers instruments were known to Müthel. However, there is a more serious issue: Christian Fuchs, who built the copy, added a pedal mechanism for engaging the 4' register. Such devices did not exist in the 17th century, and from that perspective this instrument cannot be considered a faithful copy, and in fact not even a 'period instrument'. This is a serious blot on an otherwise admirable production.

One thing is for sure: the concertos by Goldberg and Müthel should be part of the standard repertoire of keyboard concertos from the pre-classical period. There is more than Bach.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Alina Ratkowska
Marcin Swiatkiewicz
Arte dei Suonatori
Goldberg Baroque Ensemble

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