Fanfare hasn’t received many albums featuring the keyboard music of Johann Mattheson (1681–1764). It isn’t often recorded; nor was it well regarded when last reviewed in these pages, as far back as 1981 (Harmonia Mundi 1C 065-99 875, deleted; Fanfare 4:3). Edward Strickland quoted the early 20th-century German musicologist Georg Schünemann to the effect that Mattheson’s harpsichord music was “the work of a craftsman, not the expression of a personality,” and then added his own comment that two of the four suites on the disc displayed personality thanks to the interpreter, Bradford Tracey, rather than the composer.
It all leaves me admittedly more than a bit puzzled. I first became acquainted with a selection of Mattheson’s harpsichord suites a decade ago when I acquired a recording that featured Cristiano Holtz (Ramée 0605). The works on that album possess a great deal of personality, and exhibit a consistently high level of inspiration. As these were written in the French style—Mattheson, an indefatigable musical theorist, displayed an expert knowledge of national styles of recent past and present times in his Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre—perhaps Schünemann and Strickland judged him by the yardstick of Rameau and François Couperin. But such comparisons would be wide of the mark, as Mattheson’s models, even for his publication date of 1714, were of an older generation; and both the vigor and sweet pathos of Louis Couperin loom large in these works. There’s plenty of evidence for this allegiance to an earlier style, such as the absence of character pieces, espousing the older tradition of many dance movements in succession. The earlier style brisé is also much in evidence, with only slight evidence of goûts-réunis, the mix of Italianate and French characteristics, that Rameau in particular brings to such virtuosic heights. Mattheson’s harpsichord style was thus not meant to for comparison with his most popular and stylistically innovative French contemporaries. He was writing French suites, but of a kind that would have appealed predominantly to musically conservative tastes of his day, and proved that there was plenty of delight to be had in older forms and manners treated with imagination.

A good example of Mattheson’s art is his Suite No. 5 in C Minor. It begins with a short fantasie, a free-form prelude with strong imitative elements that recalls at times Denis Gaultier. An allemande follows whose theme deploys deceptive cadences to good advantage, while its succeeding variations travel far from home. An attractively angular courante with misplaced accents and irregular phrasing is succeeded by a memorably plaintive air and variations. The suite’s concluding menuet, a haughty but quirky thing, is one of those movements where the composer takes great delight in wrenching harmonic progressions periodically into distant keys without preparation. There are no titles suggesting places, people, states of mind or emotion anywhere in these pieces, but plenty of character that repays an immediate rehearing.

The performances are excellent. Rowland recorded them just shy of his 70th birthday, but there’s no lack of dexterity in the faster gigues, and no stiffness in his phrasing. He plays convincingly, with a sure sense of proper style. Rowland is not demonstrative, in the sense that his interpretations draw attention away from the music itself and onto what he does with it. Instead, he allows its beauties to declare themselves. And that succeeds well, both to his and Mattheson’s credit. The sound is very good, rich and close for a two-manual “French-style” instrument constructed in 2005 by Andrew Wooderson. It possesses the kind of full-bodied tone with a clear, well-defined treble that became the latter-day ideal for French harpsichord makers.

Holtz’s recording, which I’ve mentioned above, furnishes a view of this music distinctive enough to merit comment in its own right. It consists of just three complete suites, Nos. 1, 6, and 9, along with excerpts from five others. Holtz’s interpretations are sometimes provocative and just as often anachronistic, but in a manner that is intriguing. In the Sarabande of the First Suite, for instance, Rowland adopts a slow, freely expressive adagio that roughly translates to 66 bpm, while Holst employs a dirge-like largo of 44 bpm, drawing out the suspended harmonies and rolling his chords to sound more like a Renaissance harp than a lute. Holtz is excruciating slow, but his treatment is intriguing enough to bypass concerns about tempo for at least a good part of its length. Or consider the same Suite’s Courante, where Rowland follows the Courante’s rhythm—in a piece that, after all, emphasizes dance-like elements rather than abstracted musical elements of it. Not so, Holtz: Beginning at bar 5 in the modern Hinsch edition, with a repetitive, alternately ascending and descending figure that quickly modulates into distant keys, he accelerates rapidly. The rhythm is pulled about more throughout, but the performer’s interpretation imparts an impetuous, even arrogant character to the music. There’s no question that Mattheson’s suites can stand on their own musical merits without this kind of treatment, as witness Rowland’s notable success. Yet Holtz does offer an alternative approach.

Rowland in any case makes an excellent argument for Mattheson’s harpsichord suites, which he rightly describes in the liner notes as “of a consistently high quality.” So are his stylistically informed performances. Warmly recommended.

—Barry Brenesal