Johann Mattheson was one of those composers whose main claim to fame was that he knew absolutely everyone who was anyone during the early part of the 18th century. Moreover, he was friends with them (though there is one incident in 1704 when he took a sword to Handel, barely avoiding killing him). He wrote about them, the music of his time, and included issues of composition, theory, and performance practices in works such as Der vollkommene Capellmeister and Das neueröffnete Orchestre. As a composer, he has been mostly submerged under the lights of his friends Bach, Telemann, and Handel, and even his compatriot Reinhard Keiser seems to have superseded him in reputation. That being said, Mattheson did achieve considerable acclaim during his lifetime for his music, publishing a variety of works, such as these 12 suites for harpsichord in 1714. Perhaps it was his Anglophone tendencies—he was not only a secretary to the English ambassador in Hamburg, but he also married the daughter of an Anglican minister—that gave him some international recognition, or perhaps it was because he was an early major composer of the Hamburg opera. In any case, he apparently ceased to compose about the age of 50 when he succumbed to deafness, probably as the result of an ear infection. Like his friend Telemann, he was long-lived, though the last three decades were spent mostly devoting himself to historical and theoretical works, including a musical lexicon.
Much of Mattheson’s music has not survived, but the fact that these suites have is the result of their being printed in England. In many respects, this is the sort of work that might be ascribed to Telemann, for it includes the same sort of variety in terms of French stylized dances. For example, Suite 9 in G Minor begins with a Boutade, a sort of brief fantasia that mimics the normal prelude with its sequential scalar passages. Suite 10 in E Minor opens with a Symphonie that is equally fantasy-like, almost an improvisation but with a slightly recitative feel that moves on into an instrumental aria. Here the operatic world he occupied is felt in full force. The actual Fantasie of Suite 5 in C Minor has cascading sequences that remind one of Bach in their complexity, while Suite 7 in B♭ Major seems almost texturally like it ought to be performed with the stops of an organ. It is rich and varied, with a figuration that is complex and almost demands the various registrations. The dances, however, are more conventional in their nomenclature, generally beginning with a gentle Allemande, followed by a faster Courante, and either a Sarabande or Menuet. Occasionally Mattheson will include what he calls an “Air” (sometimes with trio), and there is the inevitable Gigue, though not always in final position. For example, in this same suite, it occurs in the penultimate position, and the jaunty compound rhythmic structure would seem a perfect conclusion, but here he adds a softer menuet, giving the suite a more genteel ending. Two Courantes are to be found in Suite 4 in G Minor, the first a more complex one with some rather thicker textures, and the second (à la Françoise) slightly more active rhythmically with dotted notes and an effete sound, almost mincing in composition. The Air of Suite 2 in A Major contains some nice counterpoint, with imitative lines and some surprising harmonic twists.
These are, to say the least, wonderful works, fully the equivalent of those composed by his friends. Mattheson was an adept and original composer, whose style reflects a thorough knowledge of composition and the concurrent trends of the day. Of course, to bring this to life requires a sensitive and focused interpretation. Fortunately, harpsichordist Gilbert Rowland provides this. He uses his registrations adroitly, and his fingerwork is always clear and precise, outlining the often texturally rich lines Mattheson writes. The sound is clear and airy. In short, this is a must-have disc that will grace the collection of Baroque music, at the same time it demonstrates the mastery of the genre by everyone’s friend, Johann Mattheson.
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