Notes and Editorial Reviews
Frische Clavier Früchte
: Seven Harpsichord Sonatas
Jan Katzschke (hpd)
CPO 777532 (58:50)
One of Johann Sebastian Bach’s prominent predecessors, Johann Kuhnau (1660–1722) can be reckoned as an important figure in Leipzig at the turn of the 18th century. His cantatas were rightly celebrated as the epitome of Protestant church music, and Johann Adolf Scheibe, usually quite cantankerous when it came to the music of his colleagues, noted that he should be acclaimed as
one of four great German composers of the age. His pupils included Johann David Heinichen and Johann Friedrich Fasch, and he was a close friend of Bach, who became his successor as cantor of St. Thomas’s. In terms of posterity, however, he had the misfortune of having competition in the form of Georg Philipp Telemann, who regarded the elder Kuhnau as hopelessly old-fashioned and addicted to dull, pedantic counterpoint. This and a series of personal tragedies contrived to diminish his reputation, and with the ascendency of Bach, who was on good terms with Telemann, his music eventually vanished from the repertory.
Kuhnau published his set of seven harpsichord sonatas, entitled “Fresh Keyboard Fruits,” in 1696 as a follow-on to two sets of keyboard exercises. He claimed to have composed them inside of a week, equating the sonatas with solid German produce that would satisfy listeners as much as tasty exotic fruits from France or Italy. He notes that Germans are as capable of providing dainties to equal those foreign vegetables, even though they are more commonplace. Such a comparison was meant to be taken metaphorically, of course—one could hardly have credited movements labeled carrots, kale, or turnips as the solid German equivalents of, say, François Couperin’s character pieces—but the point was well-taken. Five or six reprinted editions of the works followed, the last about 1740, and they were hailed by Johann Mattheson as excellent exemplars of the German contrapuntal style. Indeed, the number seven is symbolic, for the composer noted that he had composed one sonata a day, with the implication that these were to be performed one per day as well. The success of the works led him to publish one further set, the “Biblical” Sonatas, in which he took stories from the Good Book and attempted to set passages musically. While these did not have the same overwhelming success, they have eclipsed the set on this disc due to their more dramatic content. As for the content, most of the movements—each sonata has four—do not even have tempo markings, and thus one is offered some flexibility as to how they should be performed. The normal pattern of alternating slow-fast doesn’t seem to apply consistently, and in the Sixth Sonata (as in the Second) there is an additional Chaconne movement; here it is only the opening repeated da capo, bookending the inner movements. One of the features is that Kuhnau employs counterpoint, ranging from a complex double fugue in the Sixth Sonata to the straightforward subject of the Third. Otherwise, the variety of background forms taken from the normal suite of the time changes without rhyme or reason (though of course there must have been some sort of overall plan).
The sonatas here have been recorded previously by John Butt back in 1995 for Harmonia Mundi (rereleased in 2003), but the main focus in the discography has been on either the sacred music, such as the recent rerelease from the King’s Consort on Helios last year, or the “Biblical” Sonatas at the same time on Concerto with Frederico Caldara. Here harpsichordist Jan Katzschke performs them with considerable skill and verve. Though the actual recording was done four years ago, the release is now welcomed, as it is certainly time for another good rendition after two decades. The sound produced is extremely robust, as perhaps befits solid German produce, and though it tends to be without too much subtle variation in terms of phrasing, the tempos are all lively and the articulation clear and unambiguous. Katzschke has created a nice rendition that ought to serve as a worthy example of this important set of works by a Baroque composer who ought to be better known, particularly in his role as musical antecedent to Bach, Fasch, and others. Recommended.
FANFARE: Bertil van Boer
Works on This Recording
Frische Clavier Früchte: Sonata No. 6 by Johann Kuhnau
Jan Katzschke (Harpsichord)
Venue: Ev.-Luth. Kirche "Zum Guten Hirten", Sch
Length: 12 Minutes 36 Secs.
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