Johann Mattheson (1681–1764) was a musical polymath—composer, theorist, instrumentalist, singer, and lexicographer. By age nine he had mastered half a dozen instruments, was both organist and boy soprano cantor in a Lutheran parish, and also a member of the Gänsemarkt opera chorus; as an adult he was tenor soloist at the opera, and also cantor at the Mariendom cathedral church for over a decade until forced to retire from the latter by encroaching deafness in 1728 (he became completely deaf by 1735). Despite being a political diplomat by profession from 1706 onward—first as personal secretary to Sir John Wich, the British envoy to Hamburg, and then in the 1740s as legation secretary and counsel to the Duke of Holstein—he found time to compose eight operas, numerous oratorios and cantatas, and a small amount of instrumental music. Much of his music, mostly unpublished manuscripts, went missing at the end of World War II and was thought to have been destroyed, but with the fall of the Iron Curtain numerous scores were found in archives in Yerevan, Armenia and repatriated to Germany. In addition, his many and influential writings included Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre (The Newly-Opened Orchestra, 1713), which advocated progressive developments in contemporary music theory; Critica musica, the first German music periodical, which produced 24 issues between 1722 and 1725; Der vollkommene Capellmeister (The Complete Music-Master, 1739), a discourse on the relationship between music and rhetoric that championed the so-called “doctrine of the affects”; and the Grundlage einer Ehren-Pforte (Foundation of a Portal of Honor, 1740), a biographical lexicon of 149 musicians that remains a valuable source of information (though ironically Bach declined to provide a contribution and is absent from it). He was a life-long friend of Handel (despite the famous quarrel and duel between the two in 1704, in which Handel’s life was spared when a brass button on his coat blunted Mattheson’s sword), and upon Handel’s death he translated into German and funded publication of John Mainwaring’s biography of the composer.
Although he was well regarded by his contemporaries, very little of Mattheson’s music has been recorded; at present ArkivMusic shows only three versions of his 12 flute sonatas, one recording apiece of three different oratorios, and a disc of keyboard music in print (another oratorio and recordings of works for two harpsichords that are out of print can be found on Amazon). This is not the first integral recording of these 12 suites, originally published under the title Harmonisches Denkmal (Harmonic Memorial)—Colin Booth set them down on two CDs for Soundboard in 2008, and in 2006 Christiana Holtz recorded six keyboard suites (1, 4, 5, 6, 11, 12) for Ramée, while Bradford Tracey recorded four suites (1, 6, 9, 11) back in 1980 on LP for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. In his booklet notes, Gilbert Rowland points to the fact that only two of the suites (Nos. 3 and 8) adhere strictly to the standard four-movement format of Allemande-Courante-Sarabande-Gigue, attesting that “the variety, both in the types of movements and the wealth of ideas contained in many of the individual movements, is truly remarkable.” Given that the four-movement pattern was treated as a flexible template by many composers, with exceptions being almost as common as the rule, I think this gilds the lily a bit; but the music is indeed of “consistently high quality, rich in melodic invention.” Given the use of French dances and other musical forms—Air, Boulade, Loure, Menuet, Overture, Prelude, Symphonie, and Tocatine are other movement titles in the suites—the overarching shadow of the Couperins is inevitably present. However, in contrast to their original French models, Mattheson’s movements are invariably characterized by a less improvisatory and free character, and by greater formal rigor and emotional discipline and constraint. There is nothing mechanical or wooden about them, however, but rather always the reserved dignity of the rational Enlightenment philosopher that is quite appealing in its own way.
Rowland is a top-notch interpreter here, executing every phrase with consummate taste and skill and convincing rhetoric. His detailed booklet notes on each movement of each suite provide sure-footed guidance to the listener, and he is ideally captured by Athene’s recorded sound. Colin Booth’s set is out of print on CD, though downloads can be had on Amazon. While his interpretations are in some ways more varied than those of Rowland, his instruments and recorded acoustic are significantly inferior, being overly bright and resonant in sound. Lovers of harpsichord repertoire need not hesitate in making this a major new acquisition to their collections; strongly recommended.
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