How does a polymath composer of such immense talent and generosity of spirit as Johann Kuhnau end up as a historical footnote, known chiefly as Bach's predecessor at St Thomas in Leipzig? The notes accompanying the Concerto disc express the depressing state of affairs well - if grammatically loosely: Kuhnau's recent 350th anniversary led to his works' becoming "slightly more well-known". Yet there is still hope if music-lovers avail themselves, as they should, of these three marvellous recordings, which conveniently cover Kuhnau's most important instrumental works.
The Biblical Sonatas are often described as Kuhnau's masterpiece, offering as they do an early example of programmatic music. Kuhnau was not as innovative here as the Concerto notes portray him. His work comes more than a quarter of a century after Heinrich Biber's Battalia and his 'Representatio Avium', and story-telling or imagery of this kind was not uncommon in the seventeenth century. In fact, Kuhnau was well aware of his predecessors, referring to some of them in his preface to the work. Nevertheless, his quasi-operatic depictions of various tales and scenes from the Old Testament constitute compelling music-making from a visionary mind.
It should be noted, for Federico Caldara's tautly communicative recording, that each track is prefixed, occasionally infixed, with a narrated title - as per Kuhnau's score, but probably not to everyone's taste, especially on subsequent hearings where the Italian is unlikely to make any more sense to non-speakers than first time round. On the other hand, Luciano Bertoli has a mature voice, expressive without resorting to thespian melodrama, that is very unlikely to offend anyone's ears. Caldara's harpsichord has a lightweight tone, tinkly and slightly brittle, but he is well recorded.
Historical importance must be attached too to the seven sonatas constituting the 'Frische Clavier-Früchte', or 'Fresh Keyboard Fruits', for Kuhnau is generally credited as the first German to write sonatas exclusively for the keyboard, and thus an influence on glorious generations to come - not least Bach. The Fruits were published slightly earlier than the Biblical Sonatas and are, as the title suggests, more intimate in scale. Kuhnau himself reveals in his preface that he wrote them at a rate of one a day over a period of a week, and warns the listener "daß sich Niemand eine grosse Rarität dabey versprechen solle" - "that no one expect any great rarity in them". This turns out to be pure modesty - these seven magical sonatas contain some of the most delectable keyboard writing of this or indeed any era.
Moreover, Jan Katzschke gives a terrific account. In a novel step, he pauses only minimally between movements, greatly enhancing the sense of musical flow through the suites. Katzschke has already recorded some of Kuhnau's music for CPO, albeit in his capacity as conductor of the ensemble Concerto con Voce - see this warm review
. He supplies his own, detailed and interesting notes for CPO's German-English booklet, a good starting-point for further research into this absurdly neglected composer. A sidebar describes Katzschke's keyboard somewhat prosaically as "built in the German style by Dietrich Hein (Oldenburg, Germany, 2000)".
The Fresh Fruits and Biblical Sonatas were both recorded by John Butt for Harmonia Mundi more than a decade ago, performed on a combination of harpsichord, clavichord and organ. The discs have since been deleted, although they can still be found on the internet. Butt's account of the Sonatas is well worth experiencing, even if only to hear them without a narrator and on three different instruments.
The Dynamic disc, also released just over a decade ago, has similarly been deleted, though it too is still available through certain online outlets. The recording is pleasantly neutral. The booklet notes come in a generous four languages - Italian, English, German and French - and whilst they are too brief to go into much detail, they do cover the basics with regard to Kuhnau's life and the Neue Clavier-Übung. Their author, Stefano Olcese, quite unnecessarily describes Kuhnau's music as "occasionally rather insipid in terms of invention and melodic handling" - a wonder that Dynamic permitted such bovine negativity in a booklet intended to support what is in all regards a quality product.
Gabriele Micheli plays with laid-back poise, lovingly caressing the keyboard as he glides effortlessly through the pages of Kuhnau's graceful scores, ornamenting tastefully as he goes. Each of the seven Partien
(dance suites) follows more or less the same five-movement pattern - prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, gigue. A note on the instrument reveals that it is a 1728 Zell (Hamburg) original, modified in the 1990s by Italian craftsmen to give it an extended range and, to boot, a view of Montecarlo in Lucca hand-painted onto its top surface. It certainly has the fine tone of a modern instrument - none of the stridency associated with certain historical models. Here too Kuhnau's music is unfailingly urbane and colourful. Thirteen years later listeners still await the remaining, minor-key half of the Neue Clavier-Übung from Dynamic.
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