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Gottlieb MUFFAT (1690 - 1770): "Suites for Harpsichord"

Naoko Akutagawa, harpsichord

rec: March 13 - 15, 2012, Rügheim, Schüttbau
Naxos - 8.572610 (© 2013) (65'05")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list
Score Componimenti Musicali

Ciaconna con 38 Variazioni [No. 7] [1]; Parthie in d minor (MC B2); Parthie Parisien in a minor (MC B19); Parthie [No. 1] in C [1]

Source: [1] Componimenti musicali per il cembalo, c1739

Georg Muffat is fairly well-known today. Recently he even was given the status of composer in residence by the Festival Early Music Utrecht. As the festival wished to pay attention to the Peace Treaty of Utrecht (1713) - which in many ways laid the foundation for the political structure on the European continent - he was hailed as a truly European composer. In his music he mixed the various national styles of his time with the intention of creating a European cultural identity in order to further a lasting peace. In comparison Georg's son Gottlieb is little-known and his music is seldom performed. However, he shares with his father the advocacy of a mixture of various styles. The title of his Componimenti Musicali - one of the only two collections of music printed in his life-time - points in that direction. It means "musical components", and that can be interpreted as a mixture of styles and genres. We find here French overtures and dances, pieces in the style of an Italian toccata and German-style fugues. Among his peers he was highly respected. George Frideric Handel borrowed no fewer than 16 pieces from the collection in his own oeuvre. The largest number appear in his Ode for St Cecilia's Day.

Gottlieb was born in Passau as the second youngest of nine children. He may have received the first music lessons from his father, who died when he was just 14. He went to Vienna where he came under the guidance of Johann Joseph Fux, who was court composer to the Habsburg emperors in Vienna. As a keyboard player he became involved in opera performances and was also given the duty to teach the children of the imperial family. One of them was the future empress Maria Theresia. When she became empress in 1741 he was promoted to first organist. Apart from the Componimenti which probably date from around 1739 only one other collection was printed: 72 Versetl sammt 12 Toccaten of 1726. These pieces for liturgical use show Muffat's preference for counterpoint, and have led scholars to the conclusion that he was a rather conservative composer. Although he died in 1770 his music is baroque is style; there are no hints at the new style of the mid-18th century. In his later years - after his appointment as first organist at the court in 1741 - he seems not to have written any music. Whether that was because of his many duties or because he didn't feel at home in the new style is anybody's guess. Fact is that in the preface to his 72 Versetl he paid tribute to Fux, who was a strong advocate of traditional counterpoint.

This doesn't imply that Gottlieb's music is predictable. Within the framework of the baroque style he shows a good amount of versatility. The two suites which have been preserved in manuscript - Parthie in d minor and Parthie Parisien in a minor - both begin with a prélude, but these are very different. The former starts with a sequence of dense chords, which is quite dramatic and is indebted to the Italian toccata. The other prélude is dominated by arpeggios moving up and down the scale, very much in the style of the French prélude non mesuré. The former suite includes French dances, but also an Italian siciliana. The same mixture we find in the other suite, which includes a ballett - in German spelling - and an aria en rondeau. Both pieces end with a finale. It is probably to underline the difference between the two préludes that the playing is quite different as well. I have to say that Naoko Akutagawa is making too heavy weather of the Parthie in d minor. When I started listening I didn't know which instrument she played. I was struck by the heavy sound which makes the prelude a bit ponderous. I thought at first that she was using a 16' register. Then I saw that she played a copy of a Ruckers. The original dates from 1628 and this instrument was also used in other Naxos recordings, for instance the Sweelinck disc of Glen Wilson, who is also the producer of this disc. This harpsichord has no 16' register. It seems to me that this is not the ideal instrument for this repertoire. I would have preferred a later instrument, German or French. However, it is not just the instrument, it is also the registration which I am not that happy with. Ms Akutagawa rightly underlines the dramatic nature of the prélude, but that doesn't mean that she has literally to put out all the stops. No details about the instrument are mentioned, but it has two manuals which are coupled here, and I assume that the lower manual has two 8' registers which also seem to have both been used. The thunderous opening finds its counterpart in the finale.

The Componimenti close with the Ciaconna con 38 Variazioni. This was a very popular genre in the baroque era, and compositions of this kind are often both technically virtuosic and musically exciting. This piece by Muffat is no exception. It is given a fine performance here, but Ms Akutagawa felt it necessary to change registration during play. I don't know how she did it as there are no clear breathing spaces. Moreover, I can't see the need. With one registration throughout the result would be just as good - or maybe even better.

The Parthie in C is the first suite from the Componimenti and begins with an ouverture which is in three sections. After a short prelude we hear a fugal section, and the piece closes with an adagio with some chromaticism. Whereas the other two suites opened in Italian and in French style respectively, this overture reminds me of the keyboard suites by Bach. This suite is again an example of the goűts réunis with French dances and an Italian adagio, which is followed again by a finale. In this particular suite I enjoyed Ms Akutagawa's playing most. It is more elegant and relaxed, and she doesn't mess around with the stops of the harpsichord.

Although I am not happy with all the aspects of this recording it offers a nice introduction to the art of a composer who deserves to be better known. Those who have a more than average interest in the keyboard music of the baroque era are advised to investigate the complete recording of this set by Mitzi Meyerson (Glossa, 2009). An older recording, by the Hungarian harpsichordist Borbála Dobozy (Hungaroton, 1992), may also still be available somewhere. Organ music is available in a recording by Jörg-Andreas Bötticher (Pan Classics, 2010), whereas Wolfgang Baumgratz (Ambiente, 2001) recorded a selection from the liturgical organ music.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

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