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Johann MATTHESON (1681 - 1764): "The Twelve Suites of 1714, Harmonisches Denckmal"

Colin Booth, harpsichord

rec: April 2007, Bristol & August 2007, Westbury sub Mendip (Somerset, UK)
Soundboard - SBCD208 (2 CDs) (© 2008) (2.33'25")

Suite No 1 in d minor; Suite No 2 in A; Suite No 3 in D; Suite No 4 in g minor; Suite No 5 in c minor; Suite No 6 in E flat; Suite No 7 in B flat; Suite No 8 in d minor; Suite No 9 in g minor; Suite No 10 in e minor; Suite No 11 in C; Suite No 12 in f minor

(Source: Matthesons Harmonisches Denckmahl, aus zwölfferwählten Clavier-Suiten, 1714)

Johann Mattheson is one of the most frequently quoted writers about music in history. It is not often that in programme notes of discs with German music of the 18th century he is not mentioned. He was a productive writer, wether it be about performance practice or matters of style and taste. And he also was a keen observer of the musical developments in his time. In his writings he didn't hide his aesthetic preferences. Whereas a contemporary like Johann Sebastian Bach made frequent use of counterpoint, Mattheson stated unequivocally that the very foundation of music was melody.

As so often happens with writers on music who were also composers, they are frequently quoted but their music is largely ignored. There seems to be a kind of prejudice that writers - in particular music theorists - can't be really good composers. Mattheson has fallen victim to this prejudice, and so have the likes of Johann Josef Fux and 'Padre' Martini. But if you listen to their compositions there is no reason to look down on them as if they are just dull illustrations of music theory. Recent recordings of the oeuvre of Fux and Martini are evidence of that.

Mattheson's oeuvre as a composer - especially a composer of vocal music - hasn't really been explored yet. Some years ago I had the rare opportunity to attend a performance of an opera by Mattheson. It was not staged, but even so it was enough to prove that Mattheson had a lot to offer. It is a big shame his operas and oratorios are almost completely ignored. Mattheson's keyboard music has fared a little better. Recently the Brazilian harpsichordist Cristiano Holz recorded a selection of the same collection performed here (a disc I haven't heard yet) and in the late 1970s the Canadian harpsichordist Bradford Tracey recorded also four suites from this set. And Vladimir Ruso made a recording of Die wohlklingende Fingersprache of 1735. Even so Colin Booth has done us a great favour by recording the complete set of suites of 1714.

The collection of 1735 contains no less than 12 fugues, clear evidence that, with all his preference for the 'modern taste' in which the melody was dominating, Mattheson didn't consider counterpoint as something of the past. In the Suite No 12 in f minor from the collection of 1714 he includes three dances from a suite by Georg Böhm (1661 - 1733), whom Colin Booth in his programme notes calls a 'contemporary', but who stylistically belongs to a different era. I think Mr Booth is right by interpreting this 'quotation' as a kind of tribute to Böhm. From his writings we know that Mattheson had a sharp pen and sometimes vehemently criticised composers and performers, but he also was quite respectful to masters of the past. For instance he praised the 17th-century Italian keyboard composer Michelangelo Rossi, and very much regretted that so little of Buxtehude's harpsichord works had been published.

These particular movements by Böhm are not quoted unchanged: Mattheson adapts them to his own taste, and he adds three doubles to one of the movements, the sarabande. This practice was quite common in his time: what Mattheson does here is not different from how Bach arranged Italian instrumental concertos for keyboard or how he turned Pergolesi's Stabat mater into a setting of Psalm 51.

Even so there is a difference in style between those movements by Böhm and Mattheson's own compositions. In his suites the upper part is dominant, and here we see how he put his own statement of the melody being the foundation of music into practice. And he certainly could write good melodies as this collection shows. Examples are the gigue from the Suite No 4 in g minor and the allemandes from Suites 6 and 7. But there is also room for expression, like the allemande from the Suite No 3 in D or the sarabande from the Suite No 4. The menuet from that same suite contains some harmonic surprises as well.

In order to appreciate this music one needs to listen to it with the right attitude. Too often music by Bach's contemporaries suffers from being compared to the standard Bach has set. Nothing against Bach, of course, but one does his contemporaries wrong by weighing them to him. Bach himself wasn't so picky: he could appreciate music of a more modern taste than his own. After all he performed the St Mark Passion by Reinhard Keiser - another representative of the modern taste - and subscribed to Telemann's Paris Quartets.

But if this kind of repertoire is to be appreciated one needs a really good performance which fully explores the virtues of the repertoire. It is not the first time I have listened to a recording by Colin Booth. Both on MusicWeb International and in the German magazine Toccata/Alte Musik Aktuell I have reviewed several of his discs and I have always judged them favourably. This production is no exception: I have nothing but praise for Colin Booth's interpretation. He captures the character of every single piece very well, and the peculiarities of the various movements don't pass unnoticed. The little surprises here and there - for instance in the menuet of the Suite No 4 - come off well, but fortunately he doesn't rub our noses in them, as if trying to convince the listener that this is really good music. That is not necessary at all: his differentiated, lively and expressive playing reveal the qualities of Mattheson's suites.

Colin Booth uses two instruments of his own making. They are both beautiful sounding harpsichords, and the alternation between the instruments during the recording increases the variety, in particular as they are quite different in sound. Apart from a slight background noise - which is probably only noticeable when listening to the discs with a headphone - the recorded sound is good. The programme notes are informative and to the point, and the whole production is of a high standard. I had liked the timings of the suites and their movements, though. But apparently you can't have it all.

I wholeheartedly recommend this set which broadens our musical horizon by showing that some fine music was written 'in the shadow of the masters'.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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