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Georg MUFFAT (1653 - 1704): Armonico Tributo, 1682

Ars Antiqua Austria
Dir: Gunar Letzbor

rec: [no date and place given]
Symphonia - SYCAT 00183 (© 2005) (66'35")

Sonata I in D; Sonata II in g minor; Sonata III in A; Sonata IV in e minor; Sonata V in G

Gunar Letzbor, Ilia Korol, violin; Peter Aigner, Susanna Haslinger, viola; Claire Pottinger-Schmidt, viola da gamba, cello; Luciano Contini, archlute; Norbert Zeilberger, harpsichord, organ

Georg Muffat was a 'multicultural' composer in several ways. Firstly, he was born in Savoye in France, where is family - which was of Scottish origin - had settled in the early 17th century. He studied in Paris under Lully, was appointed organist at Strasbourg Cathedral - which was then in exile in Molsheim -, continued his studies in Rome with the famous organist Bernardo Pasquini, where he also met Corelli, and worked at courts in Salzburg, Vienna and Passau. Although he considered himself a German composer he was one of the earliest advocates of the goûts réunis, a mingling of the French and the Italian style, and he also wanted to introduce these styles in Germany. His educational purposes are reflected in his collections of music, which not only show a mixture of Italian and French elements, but were also preceded by prefaces in German, French, Italian and Latin. And his aims reached further than just bringing the musical styles in Europe closer to each other: "My profession is very far from the tumult of arms and from the reasons of state that cause them to be taken up. I occupy myself with notes, with words and with sounds. I exercise myself in the study of a sweet symphony: when I mingle French airs with those of the Germans and the Italians, it is not in order to incite a war, but it is rather, perhaps, a prelude to the harmony of so many notions and to amiable peace."

The compositions which were first published under the title Armonico Tributo in 1682 were later revised and printed again, in 1701. That same year these works were published also in the Auserlesene Instrumental-Music in a more thorough reworking. This is evidence enough of the importance of these pieces in the perception of their composer. They reflect the influences of Lully in that they are written in five parts, which was common in France. But the core of these pieces is the combination of two violins and bass - the model of the Italian trio sonata. In his preface Muffat underlines the many possibilities in regard to scoring and the number of instruments involved. They could be performed with three, four or five instruments, but also with a large orchestra, split into a concertino and a ripieno, just like Arcangelo Corelli's Concerti grossi op. 8. While studying with Pasquini in Rome he had the opportunity to hear Corelli direct his own Concerti grossi as well as playing with him. He was deeply impressed: "I first conceived the idea of this ingenious mixture while I was in Rome, where I studied the Italian manner on the organ and the harpsichord under the world-famous Sign.r Bernardo Pasquini; I heard with the greatest delight and admiration several most beautiful concertos [Suonate] by Sign.r Archangelo Corelli, the Orpheus of Italy on the violin, played with the greatest accuracy by a large number of musicians."

In this recording the concertos or sonatas are performed with five instruments: two violins, two violas and bc. One aspect of Corelli's performances which Muffat paid attention to in his preface is the contrast in dynamics and tempo. "At the word piano, or the letter p., which means the same thing, everyone must uniformly play so softly and with such precision that they can hardly be heard; and at the forte, or f., everyone must be inspired by so great a force and vehemence from the first note thus marked that the listeners be astonished at so great a noise (...) And it is the exact observance of this opposition of slowness and of speed, of power and of sweetness and of the ampleness of the full orchestra and the delicacy of the simple Trio that ravishes the ear, inciting it to admiration, as is the eye by the the contrast of shadow and light."

It is in these two aspects that I am not fully satisfied with this recording. There are two ways to create a contrast in dynamics: by the alternation of concertino and ripieno or the alternation of piano and forte. The first is no option in a performance with one instrument per part, and the second isn't fully realised here. The players never play "so softly ... that they can hardly be heard". The choice of tempi is also up to some debate. There is historical evidence that Corelli himself performed his Concerti grossi with large contrasts in tempo, and it is reasonable to assume that Muffat was also influenced by this aspect of Corelli's performances. In this recording sometimes the fast movements are a little too slow and the slow movements a bit too fast.

The Italian style - in particularly present in the slower movements - is better realised than the French aspect of these sonatas, which are reflected especially in the dance movements. But this recording doesn't fail to show the impressive qualities of Muffat's music. These sonatas are unconventional in their structure: Muffat doesn't hesitate to put three slow movements in succession: grave, sarabande grave, grave (Sonata II). And Sonata V in fact doesn't contain a single fast movement. Some grave movements are very expressive thanks to bold harmonic progressions. The 'aria' of Sonata II has a wonderful theme moving over a walking bass. The collection ends with a magnificent passacaglia, which takes almost half of the time the whole sonata lasts.

I am not aware of any other recording of these sonatas with one instrument per part. That, and the fact that this interpretation has enough to offer to convince any listener of the brilliance of these works, make me recommend this disc. It is a shame the presentation leaves much to be desired. Even the date and place of the recording isn't mentioned. For those who would like to hear a recording with a larger ensemble I recommend the one by Chiara Banchini's Ensemble 415 (Harmonia mundi).

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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